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Lawmakers mull loan forgiveness for mental health professionals

CARSON CITY — Behavioral health care providers may soon see their loans repaid in exchange for promising to practice in Nevada for two years.

Under a bill heard in the Assembly Education Committee on Thursday, an already-existing loan forgiveness program would be expanded to include mental health professionals who commit to practicing in the state for two years in a hospital, outpatient facility, as a faculty member training behavioral health practitioners, or as a provider in a K-12 public school.

Julia Ratti, the board chair of the Washoe County Regional Behavior Health Policy Board, said the need for behavioral health care providers has reached “crisis” levels.

“We need an infusion of behavioral health professionals now,” said Ratti, who served as a state senator representing part of Washoe County until 2021. “Whether that is retaining someone so they don’t get recruited away to another state, or whether that’s a new provider, we need them now. We are in crisis now.”

Ratti was joined by Steve Shell, the vice chair of the board and the vice president of behavioral health at Renown Health, who said the bill is a step in the right direction.

“We cannot ignore the cries anymore and we feel that this piece of legislation is a strong first step to move the dial in a positive direction,” Shell said.

Shell said the struggle to hire health care professionals comes in part from the state’s lack of competitiveness with other states’ loan repayment programs.

“I have personally recruited and lost many, many out-of-state as well as in-state candidates to other states that have stronger loan repayment programs. These candidates were extremely interested in moving to Nevada, but certainly chose other states that offered more incentives,” he said.

The program also requires the provider to accept Medicare and Medicaid, and to “provide services to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay,” according to the text of the bill.

The program would provide an up to $50,000 tax free loan repayment for a two-year commitment in what the bill calls a health professional shortage area. After the two-year period has passed, the provider can receive up to $25,000 a year.

The bill requires an appropriation of $1.5 million from the state’s general fund, an amount that would support approximately 30 behavioral health professionals in the program over the next two years.

The program would be administered by the Nevada Health Service Corps, a state loan repayment program meant to encourage health care workers to practice in areas where there are is a shortage of providers. The program, which is based at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, was established by the Legislature in 1989.

The program has provided loan repayment for 204 practitioners since its inception, according to UNR’s School of Medicine.

Contact Taylor R. Avery at TAvery@reviewjournal.com. Follow @travery98 on Twitter.

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