Texas legislators vote to curb doctor shortage

By Philippe Djegal - email

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - The only thing left is Governor Rick Perry's signature. Texas legislators passed a bill Friday which will establish a loan repayment program to help primary care physicians pay off their student loans. A new tax will mean more health care.

Doctors are praising the bill. Dr. Kirk Calhoun, President of the University of Texas Health Science Center, says Texas has needed it for awhile.

"Having more primary care doctors in your communities is sort of like motherhood and apple pie," said Dr. Calhoun.

Over the last ten years, the number of U.S. med school graduates working in family medicine has dropped by almost 50 percent, and 114 Texas counties don't meet the national standard of one physician for every 3,500 people.

"Texas is facing a physician shortage," said Dr. Calhoun. "We could need as many as 4,500 additional primary care doctors by 2015."

That's because the average medical school student graduates with more than $160,000 in loans hanging over their head.

"You have many students who are going into medicine. But, they're not going into primary care," said Dr. Bennie Webster, interim CEO of Community Health Clinics of Northeast Texas. "They're going into the specialty areas where it's more lucrative."

Dr. Webster says her clinic in Tyler currently doesn't even have a primary care physician.

"So, this means that it will give us an opportunity to probably get closer to bringing someone in to treat our patients," said Dr. Webster

The loan repayment program will be funded by a new tax on smokeless tobacco products. The deal is primary care physicians who practice medicine in under-served communities will have their med school loans paid off.

The catch is you have to work in that community for at least four years.

"Some of those students probably would decide to stay here after they see what the mission is and the love for what they're doing," said Dr. Webster.

"This will give me an additional piece of ammunition that I could use to encourage our young doctors that we train here to remain in our state and serve our citizens," said Dr. Calhoun.

Governor Perry has until June 21 to sign the bill into law. If signed, the tax on smokeless tobacco products could start as early as September 1, 2009.

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