MedPAC eyes scholarships, loan forgiveness to boost primary care ranks



A program combining loan repayment and scholarships could encourage more medical students to pursue primary care upon graduation, according to a proposal presented at a meeting of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

“A Medicare[-based] program would have a specific objective to encourage more physicians to enter primary care and provide primary care to beneficiaries,” MedPAC staffer Ariel Winter said. “By reducing educational debt, a Medicare-specific program would provide a financial incentive for physicians to choose primary care.”

Any program would face some challenges, Mr. Winter noted. Based on evidence, “it’s difficult to predict how physicians would respond if they were offered debt reduction in exchange for a commitment to practice primary care,” as financial considerations are not the only reason why physicians choose a specific career track.

Financing the program would also need to be considered. MedPAC staff recommended using a separate recommendation, one to end the Merit-based Incentive Payment System and use its $500 million put aside as MIPS bonuses to pay for any Medicare-based program.

Staff proposed a pilot program to “test the impact of different design choices on program operations, physician participation, and career choices,” he said. “Policymakers could use the results to improve the program and decide whether to expand it.”

MedPAC Vice Chairman Jon Christianson, PhD, suggested any program be tied to “physicians who practiced in areas where Medicare beneficiaries don’t have adequate access” to primary care doctors.

However, Mr. Winter noted that he is not aware of “any off-the-shelf system that identifies areas where there’s a problem, where there’s a shortage of clinicians for Medicare beneficiaries specifically. I am not sure how you would do that.”

MedPAC member Kathy Buto, former vice president of global health policy at Johnson & Johnson, questioned whether nurse practitioners and physician assistants should be included in the program, as they “are beginning to subspecialize and get out of primary care.” Mr. Winter said it is open for consideration.

MedPAC member Pat Wang, president and CEO of Healthfirst in New York, questioned whether a new program was needed or whether fixing of existing programs, “making them work better” is the way to go given the evidence that the effect of student debt on decision making is mixed.

She suggested that rather than targeting loan forgiveness, maybe the program should be structured more as a bonus payment rather than debt forgiveness as a means of incentivizing people who may not be concerned with debt forgiveness.

Ms. Buto added that questions of autonomy might also need to be addressed. “Physicians often feel like they don’t have control in Medicare, that they’re required to do a lot of things, and that they are subject to the fee schedule. If there were some way to grant more autonomy, control, and convey status that way, whether it has to do with greater flexibility in whatever, payment models and so on, that’s where I think you can begin to shift the status within primary care.”

MedPAC Chairman Francis Crosson, MD, recalled his time at Kaiser Permanente and noted their programs showed success because of the combination of a significant amount of money and time commitment (10 years).

The time commitment became an important part because after that long, physicians became a part of their communities and tended to stay.

“Two or 3 years, from my perspective and my experience, doesn’t work very well,” Dr. Crosson said. “But a significant period of time does, and a significant amount of money does seem to work.”

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