I am a medical resident. I work six days per week, nights and days, taking care of the people of New York. Last week, I was asked to join the war and redeploy to the coronavirus units. While others have been drafted into the war effort with orders to stay home and make incredible economic sacrifices, I will proudly serve alongside the rest of the health care heroes who have been called to step forward.
I accept my redeployment with no increase in salary ― a salary that mostly goes towards rent and loan payments ― and with no expectation of working fewer hours. I accept that unlike our soldiers who are armed with the most powerful weapons at their disposal, many heroes in this battle will be undersupplied with life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE). When this war is over, I do not want accolades or recognition. Instead, I want my $300,000 in federal medical school loans forgiven.
In a few short weeks, the United States has become one of the epicenters of this war. Lessons learned from health care workers fighting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in China suggest that the burden of this fight leads to extreme levels of stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia. I already see distress among my colleagues. We hear stories of health care workers at other hospitals experiencing mild COVID-like symptoms after viral exposure, who are asked to forgo testing and continue working due to a lack of tests.
In preparation for COVID-19 exposure, some of us have made the choice to move to temporary housing in an effort to protect our families. Similar to battle outcomes in China and Italy, dozens of our fellow physicians have become seriously ill with COVID-19. Some have died as a result of their service.
The best way we can say thanks to our health care heroes is to erase the enormous financial burden of their educational debt, a cost that was required to fight and win this war. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), on average, public medical schools cost $37,556 and private medical schools cost $60,665 per year.
During these four years, my colleagues and I deferred all income opportunities, as the hours spent studying and learning in the hospital far exceeded a 40-hour work week. After dedicating eight years to higher education and amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars of high interest-bound debt, we then spend up to a decade in residency and fellowship working 80 hours per week, often only making slightly above minimum wage.
After I pay my monthly rent and loan bills, a small percentage of my paycheck is left for groceries and personal expenses. While I feel fortunate to maintain a full salary during this time of economic hardship, eliminating this burden would be especially timely for many other doctors, since some hospitals have reduced physicians’ salaries in light of canceled doctors’ visits and postponed elective procedures.
For some of us, there is hope for loan forgiveness. Public Service Loan Forgiveness offers to wipe out federal loans after borrowers have worked 10 years in a not-for-profit clinical setting. However, due to a confusing application process and burdensome documentation requirements, the current approval rate is less than 1%.
I enrolled in the program with the hope that one day my six-figure loans will be erased, which would give me the opportunity to buy a house and eventually retire. But if I am not granted forgiveness, my debt will be astronomical at the end of the 10 years, since my current monthly payments barely cover the 7% interest.
How much would complete forgiveness cost the nation? There is limited data on total medical education debt in the U.S. However, based on the average amount of student debt and percentage of physicians in debt for their training, one could estimate that the cost would be in the range of $10 billion. This might still seem like a large sum of money, but there is precedent for government-funded repayment for heroic work during a time of national crisis. After Sept. 11, the federal government approved a $7 billion compensation package to first responders. In 2018 alone, the U.S. government spent $10 billion to provide post-GI bill benefits, which included money for education, to soldiers who had fought in the Iraq War.
When this war is over, we should treat our front-line health care workers — doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, environmental workers — in the same way we’ve rewarded the brave men and women who have served this country in times past. The way to do this for doctors specifically would be to forgive medical school debt ― all of it.
President Trump, you’ve long been an advocate for honoring our veterans and national heroes. COVID-19 veterans may have worn scrubs and white coats instead of camouflage and uniforms, but make no mistake, they will be veterans of war, a world war. I beg you to honor our veterans and pay the debt our country owes them by forgiving federal medical school debt.
Kate Schertz is a pediatric resident at a New York hospital.
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