Durbin Bill Would Bolster Program That Aids New Doctors Who Work In Underserved Areas | St. Louis Public Radio

Durbin Bill Would Bolster Program That Aids New Doctors Who Work In Underserved Areas

Sep 5, 2019

GRANITE CITY — A bill in Congress aims to bring more medical professionals to downstate Illinois and other rural and underserved areas across the country.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, R-Illinois, visited Granite City on Thursday to promote legislation bolstering the National Health Service Corps program at the Gateway Regional Medical Center. The program has been sending medical professionals to underserved communities since 1972 and in turn helping those professionals by offering student loan debt forgiveness. 

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, talks about the Rural America Health Corps Act in Granite City. The bipartisan legislature would help bring medical professionals to areas like Southern Illinois by bolstering the National Health Service Corps program.
Credit Kavahn Mansouri | Belleville News-Democrat

The legislation, the Rural America Health Corps Act, would build upon the existing NHSC program by extending the amount of time medical professionals can serve in rural communities from two to five years and authorize $25 million toward bolstering the program.

Durbin said its apparent in downstate Illinois and areas like it that something needs to be done

“Many of these medical professionals finish their medical educations with a ton of debt, student loan debt,” he said. “One of the first things on their mind is to find a job or opportunity to retire their debt.”

Underserved areas

According to Durbin’s office, in Illinois, 3.3 million people live in communities with doctor shortages, five million people live in communities with a lack of mental health professionals and 2.3 million people live in communities with shortages of dentists.

Durbin said currently there are 550 medical professionals in the NHSC program working in Illinois. However, only 70 of those professionals work in downstate Illinois while the vast majority works in Chicago.

“We know in downstate Illinois its a challenge,” Durbin said. “In many parts of our state, particularly in the rural small town areas when the hospitals are trying to attract these young professionals, it ends in a bidding war.”

He said if the bipartisan legislature, which Durbin introduced with Republican Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, is approved, it would give the program “specific” and “real” direction that will bring medical professionals to underserved areas.”

He added that the hope would be for those who worked in the program to eventually become rooted in the community they work in for several years.

“It’s not only to bring in the medical professionals and give them loan forgiveness but also to get them into the community and become part of the community in the hopes they’ll decide to stay,” he said. “It happens many times so that is part of our effort.”

Ed Cunningham, CEO of Gateway Regional Medical Center, said getting medical professionals to stay in a community can be a major challenge in keeping hospitals staffed.

“If we can keep someone for three years, we can keep them in the community because they are tied in,” he said.

He added that choice plays a large part in garnering attention from fresh graduates as well.

“It is hard right now to get doctors in Southern Illinois and in rural areas,” he said. “They have so many choices and most coming out now want to be in big cities.”

Prescription legislation

Durbin also touched on two other pieces of the legislation he introduced earlier this year — the FLAT Prices Act and the REMEDY Act. Both pieces of legislature focus on pharmaceuticals.

“When you ask people across the united states of America (about) some of their major concerns, the one that comes up over and over and over again — the cost of prescription drugs,” Durbin said. “Its something people think about a lot.”

The FLAT Prices Act aims to prevent pharmaceutical companies from hiking the prices of prescription drugs by penalizing them when a price increases more than 10%.

If passed, the legislation would reduce monopoly periods to companies who violated the terms.

Durbin said while pharmaceutical companies are making new discoveries, prices continue to be problematic.

“They’re making some dramatic changes and discoveries when it comes to new drugs and they are making a big difference,” he said. “But the other thing we’re finding is there’s absolutely no limit or control on the cost of prescription drugs.

The REMEDY Act is aimed to crack down on pharmaceutical patent abuses that “shields” brand name drugs from generic competition.

The act would narrow barriers generic drugmakers face when seeking FDA approval helping to bring lower-cost competition to the drug market and removing the incentive for brand-name pharmaceutical companies to amass “excessive numbers” of the follow-on.

Durbin said often patients will see an advertised brand name drug and request that from their doctors and end up paying more for a name brand drug.

“The cost of healthcare goes up dramatically because these brand name expensive drugs are being written upon the drugs instead of something generic that might do just as well for the patient,” Durbin said. “This isn’t just a minor problem, it is a major determinate on how much we pay for health insurance in this country.”

Kavahn Mansouri covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.  Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.