- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho is considering a student loan repayment program to draw highly trained psychiatrists to a pair of rural state hospitals.

A high demand for psychiatrists in Idaho has kept State Hospital North in Orofino and its sister branch State Hospital South in Blackfoot chronically understaffed.

“One of the challenges with recruiting practitioners to our state hospitals, quite honestly, is that we don’t have anything to offer them other than a salary,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Division Administrator Ross Edmunds said.

Giving job candidates the opportunity to slim down their student loan debt could help the hospitals recruit and retain bright staff, he said.

“Since I’ve been in my position, and for several years prior to that, we’ve never been fully staffed at our state hospitals,” Edmunds said.

State Hospital North is located in Orofino, a town of 3,000 people in north-central Idaho. The 55-bed facility sits across from the prison and next door to Orofino High School, where the mascot - the Maniacs - is a wild-haired man, barefoot and screaming.

The area is a haven for hunters and fisherman, but those attractions aren’t always enough to lure talented medical workers.

The problem goes beyond the sites’ rural locations. The dearth of qualified psychiatry professionals in the state means the Idaho facilities that need them are competing fiercely with each other for job candidates.

State Hospital North currently has a job contender interested in a vacant slot for a psychiatrist and medical director. But if loan repayment is off the table, the candidate told recruiters, he is going somewhere else.

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to approve $170,000 in endowment money to fund the program, with each hospital receiving $85,000. Psychiatrists, psychologists and mid-level practitioners - like physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners - would be eligible for the repayment option after working at a hospital for a year. Current employees would also be eligible.

The House Health and Welfare Committee also backed the plan, sending it forward to debate on the House floor. The bill already cleared the Senate with a unanimous vote last week.

The payout to doctors would be staggered over the course of four years, in part to dissuade new hires from jumping ship at the one-year mark. Under the plan, psychiatrists would receive $15,000 toward their debt after the first and second year at a state hospital. After the third year, the amount would jump to $20,000, and rise to $25,000 after the fourth year. Psychologists and physicians assistants would receive $10,000 the first and second years, and $15,000 the third and fourth years.

Currently, State Hospital North and State Hospital South have a vacancy of only one psychiatrist each. However, the hospitals are using mid-level practitioners to fill some spots meant for a psychiatrist, and contracting out other services due to understaffing, something that gets expensive fast.

Ken Kraft, administrator at State Hospital North, said trouble with recruiting isn’t new.

“It’s been ongoing, and I think it’s gotten worse,” he said. “There seems to be a shortage on a national level of psychiatrists.”

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