UI Health Alliance promises $1 million gift


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In a city such as Iowa City, a medical-care facility can be easily found, but in rural areas, often would-be patients go unseen because of the lack of physicians. 

Carver College of Medicine Dean Debra Schwinn said she hopes a new University of Iowa Health Alliance donation will help solve one of the larger problems with rural health care — access.

“We need more physicians,” she said. “There are some counties that don’t have a single physician, so this will address that issue very critically.”

Officials are taking steps to improve rural health care in Iowa by donating $1 million to the cause.
Gov. Terry Branstad and UI President Sally Mason were among the officials who sat onstage when the room, filled to the brim, applauded their announcement.

The Health Alliance’s funding will go to the Rural Iowa Primary Care Loan Repayment Program. The alliance, which started in 2012, comprises more than 50 hospitals and 160 physician clinics across the state.

Branstad told the crowd in his address he feels this is another step in moving Iowa up in the ranks of healthy states. The governor has previously said he wants Iowa to be the healthiest state in the nation by 2016 in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

“As my old football coach used to say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” he said pointing to Iowa’s 10-spot jump in the last two years. “It’s going to get tougher as we try to move up the ladder to be No. 1. Having quality family physicians all over the state of Iowa, especially in these rural areas, is going to be extremely important to our ability to achieve that goal.”

Last spring, officials implemented the program, which helps students in Iowa pay back medical school and undergraduate loans after they graduate if they agree to work in a rural area for five years.

The alliance has promised $1 million in order to help fund  the repayment program. Twenty students can be accepted per year, 10 from the UI Carver College of Medicine and ten from the Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“We are confident that this initiative is going to be tremendously successful,” said CEO of Mercy Health Network David Vellinga. “It’s going to make a huge difference in the lives of Iowans — particularly our rural colleagues throughout the state.”

Each student can receive up to $50,000 per year for four years after her or his five-year service period.

Ninety percent of Iowa is considered rural, or having a population of fewer than 26,000 and being located at least 20 miles away from a city with a population of 50,000 or more.

Schwinn said she can tell from talking to students that there is an interest in this. She said eight first- and second-year students are enrolled so far in the program.

Schwinn noted each medical student leaves school with an average of $161,000 in loan debt.

Mason agreed that with loans being so large, the incentive to get the payback is beneficial.

“This opportunity to have a loan-repayment program — that’s the biggest barrier,” she said afterward the meeting. “If you’re going to graduate with over $160,000 of debt, it’s hard to think about going to a small practice in a rural environment where the pay is obviously not going to be as good as it might be in a larger city, so this should take away those barriers.”

In addition to the various medical officials who attended the announcement, two members of the Iowa Legislature sat in the front row in support of the initiative — Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, and Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville.

Dvorsky said the support coming from the health-care alliance is a tremendous help in pushing the program along.

“[Physicians] need to have some support from somewhere else also,” he said. “They can’t really be out there on their own — so if we can build support with, maybe, this network of the UI Health Alliance, for those physicians, that’s important.” 

Jacoby said he hopes the program will help keep physicians in rural areas, not just begin there.

“Health care is important in Iowa, especially because we are looking at a number of people over 60,” he said. “As we age out in Iowa, health care becomes even more important, more intense, and frankly, more expensive, so we need more physicians in the rural area, and this program will help our young physicians start in the rural area and hopefully stay there.”

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