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Changes proposed to health sciences scholarship program

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Lawmakers this week heard about the possibilities for changing Health Sciences scholarships.

Laura Boone, director of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Health Sciences program spoke to the Legislature's Education Subcommittee B Oct. 21 as part of lawmakers' regular monthly interim committee meetings.

The first proposed change Boone presented would be changing the name from Health Sciences Scholarship program to Health Sciences Service program. It's not a scholarship program, but a recruitment incentive, Boone said.

"The difference is this isn't a financial aid product that these students are receiving," she said. "The award they receive is a cash award. It's up to the recipient to how they want to use it."

The Health Sciences Scholarship Program is a graduate-level program included in House Bill 2738 and has been operating since 1995 at the HEPC.

Boone said the vast majority of students, however, use the money to pay back loans.

"It's also not uncommon for relocation expenses," she said. "A lot are leaving school. 

"They want to purchase their first home … things like that. Our mission overall is to get people that are dedicated to rural and underserved practice out in the communities and working. That's our number one criteria. It's about service. That's why we want to change the name."

The second change she proposed includes adding to the law the professions that are currently participating in the program that are not listed. Although the program was originally for physicians only, the statute allows the vice chancellor of health sciences the discretion to add professions over time. Boone said that is what has been done and, in reality, the program is serving many more than the law currently states.

The program has expanded to include nurse practitioners, midwives, nurse educators, physician assistants, doctoral level psychologists, licensed independent clinical social workers and physical therapists.

The third proposed change would be allowing more flexibility to award larger money amounts. 

"Since 1995, a lot has changed," Boone said. "Students are graduating with a lot more debt. Realities in work practice and getting people to areas … it's even harder today, in my opinion, to get people to come and work in these areas."

With similar programs offering $40,000 to $60,000 for a two-year commitment, Boone said offering $20,000 isn't much of an incentive. She said paying back a larger monetary amount for not fulfilling the service requirement will make people think a little harder. 

"Other programs are much more competitive," she said. "Less people are awarded those larger awards." 

Investing more in fewer people rather than investing a little in a lot of people, Boone said, will make for a better program. 

"We'd like to have the discretion based on available funding each year to establish what the levels of the scholarship should be," she said. 

She reiterated that the program is a recruitment incentive program to attract health professionals to work in underserved areas in West Virginia.

Boone said that although underserved typically means rural areas of the state, it can also mean urban pockets where there are populations that, for whatever reason, do not receive great access to health care.

Students apply in their final year of school and are usually notified in December if they received an award. All recipients receive $10,000, with the exception of physicians, who receive $20,000. Approximately 15-20 awards are given per year, with every qualified applicant usually receiving an award. Boone said very rarely are all the worthy applicants not funded. 

In return, recipients have a two-year, full-time service obligation in an outpatient setting that begins right after graduation, with the exception of physicians and psychologists. After the two years expires, recipients choose whether they want to stay in their area or not. 

Physicians receive the money from the award as a fourth year medical student and are required to stay in West Virginia for their three-year residency.

It is a one-time reward that is not eligible for renewal.

"Our hope and intent of the program is to keep them there, to retain them, in that underserved area of the state," Boone said. 

According to Boone, the original focus of the program was primary care but has grown over the years to include physical therapists and mental health professions. The definition of primary care includes family practice, family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry.

"They have a lot of options," Boone said. "The overwhelming majority go on to a family practice. We've only had one or two people in 18 years that have entered psychology.

"Additionally, the nurse educators work for two years at any undergraduate two or four year nursing program."

Kathy Butler, vice chancellor for academic affairs, also provided lawmakers with the results of a study regarding higher education governance and capital projects and facilities. 

After looking at law and past policy, and according to the Higher Learning Commission, Butler said there to be no conflict regarding the dual authority of governing boards and HEPC/CCTCE, or Council for Community and Technical College Education, over institutions.