Debt-scrapping law for rural doctors kicks in

Jolyon Attwooll

10/11/2022 4:12:21 PM

The move is designed to encourage doctors and nurse practitioners to work in areas of acute need, although views are mixed on its likely impact. 

Rural doctor with stethoscope
While the initiative has been backed as an incentive to address rural workforce shortages, it remains to be seen what the long-term impact will be.

Legislation allowing doctors and nurse practitioners to reclaim student debt if they work in rural and remote areas came into effect this week.
Known as the HELP Debt Reduction for Rural Doctors and Nurse Practitioners scheme, it allows eligible workers who are employed in the most remote parts of Australia for a certain amount of time to have their HELP debt paid off in full.
The policy was announced late last year by the previous Federal Government and was introduced into legislation on 10 November. 
Under the terms of the scheme, those eligible will have their entire HELP debt repaid if they work in the most remote parts of the country, classified as MM 6–7 under the Modified Monash Model, for half the amount of time that they studied.
For those working in MM 3–5, it will mean a full proportion of student debt is repaid after working the equivalent time of their study period.
It applies to those with relevant studies at Australian universities – ie a medicine degree for aspiring GPs.
RACGP Rural Chair Dr Michael Clements said that he backs any incentive to address rural workforce shortages and believes it will be a welcome support to those committed to remote areas.
‘We certainly are aware that there will be people who will be going rural already and will find this of great benefit,’ he told newsGP.  

However, while the Government says it expects the policy to bring around 850 doctors and nurse practitioners to rural and remote areas every year, Dr Clements is unsure about the extent of its overall impact.
‘It may incentivise them to stay a bit longer but it’s unlikely to be enough of an impact on decision-making for new graduates thinking about where to work,’ he said.
‘There are so many factors at play when a junior doctor is considering where they’re going to work. They have to have quite a decent return of service to trigger this benefit.
‘Given that HELP debt trickles out of that tax pay, if people have got other reasons to want to stay in urban areas, it’s really not going to be enough to tip them over the edge.’
It is a view shared by the National Rural Health Student Network (NRHSN), the peak representative bodies for medical, nursing and allied health students in Australia.
It stated in a report that the scheme is likely to be ‘most appealing to students and healthcare workers with a prior interest in regional, rural and remote health’.
‘However, our findings suggest that the scheme is unlikely to attract those with no prior exposure, interest or professional reason to relocate to outside of metropolitan areas,’ the authors wrote.
The program is for those who have outstanding HELP debt when they commence work in an eligible area and applies from 1 January 2022.
The Department of Health (DoH) gives the example of an aspiring GP who completed a six-year medicine degree and begins their community general practice training from February 2022 working in MM3 and MM4 locations, where they intend to remain for the following six years.
That GP would have a 50% reduction in outstanding HELP debt from 1 February 2025, rising to 100% by 1 February 2028.
Those eligible keep paying their HELP debt while working, with payments eventually refunded through the tax system once the obligatory time is complete, according to the DoH.
The DoH has published a fact sheet about the scheme on its website.  
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Dr Susan Margaret McDonald   12/11/2022 11:11:43 AM

This is a small step in the right direction but there is much more to be done.
Opening the wallet just a small amount will pay huge dividends.

Dr Lynette Dorothy Allen   13/11/2022 6:34:48 PM

This policy should have been introduced when fees began to be charged for attending University and we would not be in as much of a mess as we are now. It has been suggested for many years