Utah to pay some health care providers’ student loan debt if they work in underserved communities

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Anna West, workforce development coordinator for the Primary Care and Rural Health office, appeared on a Fox 13 news segment to shed light on the need for mental health professionals statewide. West appeared alongside Jared Powell, an LCSW at First Step House and current loan repayment recipient, in an effort to promote the Health Care Workforce Financial Assistance program. This program aims to help providers pay off their student loans in exchange for their service in an underserved or rural area.

SALT LAKE CITY — Like a lot of health care workers, Jared Powell left school with plenty of student loan debt.

“I was looking at, can I stay in the field? So when they said we have this loan repayment possibility, it was meaningful for me,” the licensed clinical social worker said.

Powell is taking advantage of a program Utah’s Department of Health & Human Services is offering, repaying some of his debt from school in exchange for working specifically in an under-served area. He works at First Step House, which assists people who are experiencing substance abuse problems, homelessness and other issues.

“The loan repayment, to just have the loans being taken care of while I’m in, that was just a big win for me,” Powell told FOX 13 News on Monday.

The Utah Department of Health & Human Services is trying to expand the program, specifically to help people in rural and other under-served communities. For some who live in rural Utah, it can be a long drive just to see a doctor. The entire state is considered under-served for mental health care.

So the state now offers to pay some college bills if someone is willing to relocate to offer their services.

“You would need to work in a shortage area, commit to three years of service there,” said Anna West, the workforce development coordinator for the agency. “Your site needs to agree to it and they’ll match 20%.”

The Utah State Legislature funded $1.7 million for the program this year, West said, so the state is looking to expand the loan repayment program and recruit more graduates to sign up. It could be significant for communities that struggle to get health care workers. Some who relocated have ended up putting down roots in their new community where they are welcomed, West told FOX 13 News.

“The whole goal is to get providers into areas that are under served,” she said. “So you’ll be serving your time in a shortage area and doing some real important work.”

Powell said the loan repayment has helped him and he likes what he does. He said he can see the difference he is making in people’s lives and his employer is glad to have him there.

“To watch someone who comes in with sunken eyes and hopelessness, but to see them have the flesh fill back out in their face, to smile, to be talking about job prospects, to be looking at restoring connections with their families,” Powell said, tearing up. “I’ll say it’s not glamorous, but glorious.”

The original article was posted on May 15, 2023 on Fox 13 Utah.

Read more about Jared Powell’s story in our previous post, “Lawyer embraces a life of social work and service.”