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It's back: APTA-supported legislation that would allow PTs to participate in a federal program that provides student loan repayment in exchange for work at an approved site in a rural and underserved areas has been reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. And this time, the bill includes measures that would increase the physical therapist's role in community health centers, the facilities responsible for a significant portion of the health care delivered in areas where providers are in short supply.

The bill (HR. 4829) would allow PTs to participate in the National Health Service Corps, or NHSC, 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.

“The non-pharmaceutical treatment that physical therapists can provide to patients experiencing pain is critical to help curb the nation’s opioid epidemic,” DeGette said in a press release. “By expanding this program, we can encourage more physical therapists to take jobs in the communities that need them most and provide patients living in those areas greater access to the care they need.”

APTA urges members to help advocate for passage of the bill by voicing support through the APTA Patient Action Center.

While substantially similar to NHSC legislation introduced but not acted on in 2019 and 2021, the new version of the bill folds in provisions of the 2021 proposed legislation aimed at improving access to care in community health centers. Those provisions, now a part of H.R. 4829, provide community health centers with the option to hire PTs as full-time employees and enable the centers to bill Medicare and Medicaid for their services.

"Including physical therapists in the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program will help recruit and retain therapists to deliver care in areas experiencing health care workforce shortages," said APTA President Roger Herr, PT, MPA, in an APTA press release. "This legislation will provide options and flexibilities for community health centers in offering physical therapy so that patient care is not delayed."

Steve Kline, APTA congressional affairs specialist, says that including the health center language makes sense, and that the changes are sorely needed.

"Underserved areas were struggling through the ongoing opioid crisis before they were hit with the COVID-19 pandemic and now its aftermath," Kline said. "This legislation would fix a glaring gap in the NHSC — namely, its lack of a physical rehab component — and connect the dots between NHSC service and community health centers, where much of that service takes place."

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