By William K. Alcorn
Humility of Mary Health Partners established a $1 million scholarship program to help address the huge debt incurred by medical-school students and the shortage of physicians in the area.
The dream of becoming a doctor, the years of study and exhaustion endured, is a time for celebration.
But for many, achieving the cherished goal brings a financial reality: Payments on their student loans are required immediately.
HMHP interns, Drs. Molly Howsare and Brianne (Witmer) Bagwell, are no exception to what Dr. Howsare described as her “extremely daunting” medical-school debt.
When she graduated from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine last year, Dr. Howsare, 31, faced $280,000 in student loans for medical school only. When she graduated in 2002 from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., she had no college debt, and she worked seven years as a registered nurse before deciding to become a physician.
Dr. Bagwell, 25, said she had between $150,000 and $200,000 in student loans when she graduated in 2012 from Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown. Her debt was significantly less than it might have been because she is married and did not have to borrow money for living expenses, as did Dr. Howsare.
“The debt issue made me think hard about whether to go into medicine. But I knew I would really love being a doctor, and I do,” Dr. Bagwell said.
As interns, the doctors earn about $45,000 a year, into which student-loan payments can make a substantial dent depending on how quickly they want to repay.
For instance, Dr. Bagwell said she chose to make minimum payments based on her income over 25-year loan period. Under that system, while she is an intern, she pays about $550 a month. Because her salary will increase after residency, however, her payments will become significantly higher for the remaining 20 years of the loan.
Others may not choose this option and have payments of $1,000 to $2,000 a month as a resident, Dr. Bagwell said.
“We’ve had people quit medical school because of the debt,” said Dr. James F. Kravec, chairman of the St. Elizabeth Health Center’s Department of Internal Medicine and associate director of the Transitional Year Residency Program.
And because Drs. Bagwell and Howsare are primary-care physicians, internists and family doctors, they will earn about half of what a surgeon or other specialists earn once they go into practice, thus making their pay-back period much longer, Dr. Kravec said. He graduated in 2002 from NEOMED and said he is still paying off his medical-school student loans.
A Canfield resident, Dr. Kravec grew up in Austintown and graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School in 1995 and Youngstown State University in 1998.
Drs. Kravec, Bagwell and Howsare fit the profile of medical students HMHP wants to attract to its scholarship program and keep in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys practicing medicine after graduation.
Dr. Bagwell grew up in Columbiana and graduated from South Range High School in 2006 and the University of Akron in 2008.
Dr. Howsare’s hometown is Transfer, Pa. She graduated in 1999 from Reynolds High School and from Thiel College in 2002.
While the HMHP scholarship initiative came too late to help them with their medical-school debt, under the hospital system’s new program, up to five students in their third year of medical school, who meet other criteria, can apply for $50,000 a year for the last two years.
There are some strings attached to the scholarship, however.
For instance, candidates must have graduated from a high school in Columbiana, Mahoning or Trumbull counties in Ohio or Mercer or Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania.
They must also agree to establish medical practices in the Mahoning Valley and serve on the medical staff of one of HMHP’s hospitals in Youngstown, Boardman or Warren for five years after they complete their residencies. If they do, the scholarship is forgiven, Dr. Kravec said.
The requirement that scholarship recipients work here is a way to sell the area to medical students in the hope they will stay once their obligation is complete, he said.
Medical students graduate with an average debt of about $160,000. This scholarship funding, which would cut the debt burden by almost two-thirds, is of substantial impact, said Dr. Jeffrey Susman, dean of the College of Medicine at NEOMED.
“Having access to additional scholarship funds is an important priority for NEOMED and we are extremely grateful for HMHP’s vision,” he said.
The Mahoning Valley has experienced shortages of physicians for decades. By funding these scholarships, HMHP is contributing to the medical education of students and bringing them back to the area to care for the community, said Robert Shroder, chief executive officer of HMHP. “This initiative will help ensure a supply of talented medical professionals in the Mahoning Valley for the future,” he said.