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Could the COVID-19 pandemic's aftermath and a resurgent opioid crisis finally get federal lawmakers to understand the need for PTs in rural and underserved areas — and see the wisdom in forgiving student loan debt as a way to make that happen? APTA-supported legislation reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to do just that.

The bill (H.R. 3759) would allow PTs to participate in the National Health Service Corps loan repayment program, an initiative that repays up to $50,000 in outstanding student loans to certain health care professionals who agree to work for at least two years in a designated Health Professional Shortage Area. The bill was introduced by Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate soon.

APTA is a strong supporter of extending student loan forgiveness to PTs — particularly as a way to improve access to physical therapist services in areas already experiencing shortages — and has made passage of forgiveness legislation a key objective in its 2021-2022 public policy priorities. The association has also included addressing student debt as a part of its overall strategic plan.

If passed into law, the legislation would also help to address a glaring gap in the NHSC: the program's lack of any physical rehabilitation component. As many Americans face lengthy post-COVID-19 recoveries and the country finds that the opioid crisis has actually worsened over the past year, access to physical therapy could become a major issue, particularly in underserved areas hit hard by both. An estimated 17 million Americans are served by the NHSC.

"Before the pandemic, we knew that the opioid epidemic was ravaging rural and medically underserved areas," said David Scala, APTA senior congressional affairs specialist. "That public health challenge didn't vanish during the pandemic, and now these areas are facing an additional need for providers who can help survivors of COVID-19 make a recovery. These compounded access issues must be addressed, and APTA is grateful to representatives DeGette and Armstrong for recognizing the role physical therapy can play in providing much-needed care."

Hannah Cook, SPT, president of the APTA Student Assembly, thinks the bill speaks to multiple concerns, and should be strongly supported by physical therapy students.

"This bill is incredibly important — it's an opportunity for PTs to receive loan repayment, but it also increases access to physical therapy to populations that need it," Cook said. "It’s an overall win-win for every stakeholder involved, but for students especially, this is something that affects them directly. Most of us are graduating with student loan debt, and being able to participate in NHSC would not only help alleviate that debt, but open an opportunity to provide needed services in places where our services are difficult to access now."

APTA's advocacy for H.R. 3759 (and its yet-to-be-introduced companion in the Senate) is ongoing, and the association encourages members to join the push for the bill by using the APTA Patient Action Center to contact their legislators and urge support.

APTA staff will closely track the progress of this legislation. Be on the lookout for more opportunities to advocate for this important change. If you want to get an even closer look at APTA's advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and connect with other members interested in working for change, join the APTA Advocacy Network.

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