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Lack of loan forgiveness hinders nursing profession

Judy Kaczinski RN, seated, talks to nursing assistant Samantha Crablo on the Medical Surgical floor at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital Thursday. Crablo, who’s entering the nursing school at LCCC, will not be able to capitalize on a loan forgiveness program.

Aimee Dilger / The Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE – When Samantha Crablo started looking into a career in nursing, she was given literature about a loan forgiveness program offered by a state agency that deals with student loans.

The incentive was enough to make her decision to switch majors from chemistry to nursing a done deal.

Crablo, countless nursing students and hundreds of nurses across the state received the news this past week: The loan forgiveness program has ended.

Established nearly six years ago to stem the state’s nursing shortage, the program ended after the agency overseeing it announced it lacks the funding to keep it going.

The revelation has been met with disappointment from area health providers, nursing schools and elected officials.

The Nursing Loan Forgiveness for Healthier Futures program’s demise “is going to greatly reduce the number of people coming into basic nursing programs over the next few years,” according to Dana Clark, the dean of nursing and health sciences at Luzerne County Community College, Nanticoke.

Clark said the program has played a major role in reviving the floundering nursing program at schools across the state. At LCCC, Clark said there’s been a 30-percent increase in enrollment in the nursing program.

Crablo, a 2007 graduate of GAR Memorial High School, will enter the LCCC nursing school within a year. The 18-year-old, who works as a nursing assistant at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, said paying off the entire amount of the student loan will be rough. Clark said Crablo will be an anomaly, one of the few who won’t be turned away from the nursing field by the loss of the incentive program.

Established in October 2002 in response to a decreasing number of enrollments in nursing and health care majors across the state, the program was created to relieve the deficiency.

“It’s disappointing because it was an excellent program and it was working,” said Margaret Heffers, an associate vice president of human resources at Geisinger Health System. At least four nurses within the system took advantage of the program, Heffers said.

Goals of forgiveness program

Under the program, a student would not have to pay back up to $12,500 or 25 percent of his or her student loans as long as they met certain conditions. All local hospitals and colleges including LCCC, Misericordia and Wilkes universities participated in the program.

The program had four main goals:

• Encourage licensed practical nurses to earn registered nursing degrees.

• Increase the numbers of nurses attending graduate school to prepare to replace nursing educators who are approaching retirement.

• Increase the number of students enrolling in and graduating from approved nursing education programs.

• Increase the number of nurses working throughout the state.

Clark praised the program and said each goal was met.

The Pennsylvania Higher Education Association Agency and American Education Services agreed to fund the incentive in hopes of boosting the number of nursing students. A clause in the agreement, signed by each of the 828 participants, stated that the program could end at any time because of a lack of funding.

That time has come, according to letters to participants, hospitals and colleges that were issued last week, according to PHEAA spokesman Mike Reiber.

Clark of LCCC said many in the industry knew this was coming for months.

Reiber said PHEAA had no choice since lenders throughout the country are going through tough times because of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, a tough economy and other factors.

“In the past few months, 14 percent of all companies involved in student lending have said they would withdraw from the $85-billion student-loan business,” he said. “It’s just a bad situation right now.”

At a summit called by PHEAA in February, the federal government was urged to provide short- and long-range aid for the student loan crisis. Two student loan bills supported by U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, are on the table in Washington, but neither have been brought up for a vote.

On Wednesday, Kanjorski said he was “very concerned” by PHEAA’s announcement regarding the nursing program.

“Our nation faces a critical shortage of nurses, and PHEAA’s Nursing Loan Forgiveness program has helped many individuals to obtain a nursing education.”

Clark said the lending agencies are “in desperate straits” and as bad a situation as PHEAA and others are in, she said the nursing field is worse. Though the industry was starting to see an improvement since the program was put into place, she said its suspension could hurt the field for the next decade.

“It doesn’t look like this will turn around anytime soon,” Clark said of the lending crisis. “It could take four or five years and then to get the students back into the nursing programs and into the pipeline again could take another three or four years. Now we’re looking at 10 years out.”

That compounds what was already a poor outlook for the field.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Pennsylvania health care providers will experience a 41-percent vacancy rate in nursing positions by 2020.

Funds for two similar loan forgiveness programs for nurses were also stopped. One helped students studying to become nurse educators and the other was for nurses who go on to work in state veterans’ homes.

The programs were funded through PHEAA’s sale of bonds rather than taxpayer-generated revenue. Right now there aren’t enough buyers willing to purchase bonds floated by lending institutes, Reiber said.

The program is “on a hiatus,” not eliminated, he said.

“We hope the market turns around tomorrow. We hope all these programs start again real soon.”

So too does Bob Hoffman, the vice president for patient care at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital. He said his hospital and hundreds across the state are short-staffed and the loss of this program is a step backward.

“It’s frustrating news to hear and it was a short-sighted decision but we don’t really believe there was a lot they could have done. We just hope it’s a short-term problem,” Hoffman said.

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