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Free med school will ensure a healthier supply of docs

Every person in the United States should have access to affordable, high-quality, cutting-edge health care, regardless of where they live. Sadly, this is not currently the case for many Americans and New Mexicans.

We are short on doctors, long on waitlists to see one. We can’t pay salaries competitive with major metro areas, don’t have the patient volume to attract certain specialties, and burnout is reaching a level where some physicians do not want to continue practicing. It is expected by 2030 New Mexico will have the eighth-highest doctor shortage in the country.

We are underserved in every specialty and every part of our vast state, yet aspiring physicians willing to take on this challenge often find the cost of even public medical schools prohibitive and seek an alternate career path. That is a tragedy for them and for the communities they would serve.

To deal with this challenge, I have proposed an idea never tried in a public institution of higher education – free medical school at the University of New Mexico in exchange for a commitment to practice in our state for four years post-residency.

I’m familiar with the usual objections in light of the salaries doctors make: “Others are more deserving” and “taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill.” This overlooks that the average student will graduate with close to $120,000 of debt – at one of the most affordable institutions in the country where I have cut tuition 1% annually the past six years.

I have a longstanding commitment to make medical education accessible to students from all backgrounds, particularly in one of the poorest states in the nation. This is especially important at a time when more than 75% of medical students come from the top two quintiles of family income. I am charged with improving the health of all New Mexicans, and with educating a health care workforce that reflects our state’s geographic, socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.

This is why I am requesting $6 million from the Legislature for the New Mexico Health Equity Scholarship. As its name suggests, it will be transformational to health equity, for both patients and future doctors, and I expect it will improve the lives of New Mexicans statewide. By requiring medical students to sign on for post-residency practice in return for free medical tuition, we will infuse our state’s physician workforce with the new blood we so desperately need.

Right now, just 25% of students who graduate from our program and attend residency somewhere else come back to New Mexico to practice. We would turn this statistic on its head. In fact, an analysis shows that with an annual investment of just $6 million, New Mexico would within 15 years gain up to 230 additional M.D.s, 5,700 additional jobs in other sectors, $351 million in increased wages and salaries, and $4.3 million in General Fund revenue. These doctors would work in clinics and hospitals in rural and urban areas, at trauma centers – including UNM Hospital, the state’s only Level I trauma center – and in specialty centers statewide.

At the moment, only three private U.S. institutions are offering free medical school tuition, thanks to the generosity of donors. My proposal is the only one linking it back to serving a local region, our N.M. community.

Offering free tuition for medical school with this service commitment opens doors that might otherwise remain closed for some lower-income students because they simply could not afford to pay for the education. These are the students, from communities across the state, who we want in our medical school and as our future physicians. We aspire to educate doctors who look like and share the same experiences as the patients they serve because we know that this leads to improved health outcomes. Through this initiative, we expect to increase our diversity and be able to place more providers in rural areas, where some patients currently have to travel 100 miles or more to see a physician.

I hope to be able to expand this endeavor to other health provider programs. This is not just a physician issue; provider shortages in every field touch all 33 counties of our state.

I have seen a great deal in my 40-plus years in medicine. I believe passing this $6 million funding request for the Health Equity Scholarships with the help of sponsor Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, might have the greatest impact on the health and well-being of our communities I have ever witnessed.

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