Arizona lawmakers voted Tuesday to expand a program that helps doctors repay their medical school debts if they agree to go where they are needed, primarily rural and medically underserved areas of the state.
SB 1194, proposed by state Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, will next go to the full Senate.

Kristen Boilini, lobbyist for the Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, said Arizona needs another 442 full-time primary care physicians, 441 dentists and 204 behavioral-health providers and psychiatrists. The list includes not only rural areas but inner-city areas in both Pima and Maricopa counties, where the number of medical providers falls short.

Generally, the needs fall in areas with high uninsured and underinsured people, where a high percentage of people receive their coverage through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state's Medicaid program.

"AHCCCS' provider payment rates are so low, you don't get a lot of private practice groups that want to go work in those areas," Boilini told The Arizona Daily Star. That makes such communities dependent on nonprofit groups and community health centers.

The legislation approved Tuesday provides for repayment of $65,000 in the first two years and $35,000 for every year served after that, with no cap on the number of years. The legislation also permits the program to take private donations.

Boilini said the average medical school graduate starts practice with $170,000 in debt, pegging the figure at $240,000 for dental school grads.

But Boilini said the existing state program has caps on loan forgiveness.

State Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, has introduced similar legislation in the Arizona House. That measure, HB 2495, is awaiting a hearing.

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