Tester introduces new legislation to lure health-care specialists to Libby

Libby Western News

by Canda Harbaugh

Sen. Jon Tester introduced legislation Monday that would expand the type of health-care providers eligible for student loan forgiveness and scholarships under the Public Health Service Act in an effort to lure much-needed health-care specialists to Libby.

“As it is right now, it’s unprecedented what’s going on in Libby and this will open new doors for folks to make sure that Libby gets the health-care providers and the health care that they deserve,” Tester said.

The National Health Service Corps recruits health-care specialists for underserved areas through scholarships and loan forgiveness, but it currently only applies to those in primary care, dentistry and mental health. Speciality care providers, which are needed to serve a population with lung diseases, are not eligible.

The bill would expand the act to include specialists related to the health needs of people affected by an environmental exposure that has led to a public health emergency. Because the Libby-area Superfund site is the first-ever to be declared an environmental public health emergency, Libby is the only place that the new legislation would apply to at least initially.

The Center for Asbestos Related Disease has struggled in recent years with only one doctor, Brad Black, and an increasing number of patients, according to CARD outreach coordinator Tanis Hernandez. Increased medical benefits for patients who suffer from asbestos-related disease has caused the number of screenings CARD performs to increase exponentially, yet the clinic is unable to attract another clinician to help with the workload.

Ideally, CARD would hire a pulmonologist, but the clinic is becoming desperate for any help, Hernandez said.

“For years and years we’ve been saying we’re averaging 20 new patients a month and right now we’re averaging 40 new patients a month,” Hernandez said. “… There’s just this huge volume that we can’t keep up with. With the difficulty of recuriting specialty care providers in a rural setting this (bill) would be a great asset to us.”

CARD has been searching for the past year for help, but the remoteness of Libby and the stigma of the Superfund site does little to attract applicants. CARD officials informed Tester’s aides of the problem a few weeks ago, Hernandez said.

“Why this is critically important,” Tester said, “is because we’ve visited with the folks in Libby and Dr. Black and others and they have expressed the fact that it is very, very hard to get specialists in Libby because of the public health emergency and because of what transpired there. They need specialists and this is one way to encourage specialists to go there – they get some benefits for doing it.”

The National Health Service Corps will pay $50,000 of an eligible healch-care worker’s student loans for every two years that he or she works in an underserved area, which includes rural, frontier or urban settings with few resources. The scholarship program pays expenses while in college in exchange for promising to work in an underserved area upon graduation.

Tester feels confident about the legislation and expects the bill to be given to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“We’re introducing the bill today,” he said Monday. “It should go to the Health Committee, and we’ll look for opportunities to move it as soon as we can.”