HELPing Hundreds of Healthcare Professionals Stay in Hawaiʻi

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In the first round of the program, the state’s brand new Hawaiʻi Healthcare Education Loan Repayment Program (HELP) is alleviating the educational debt of 492 medical and healthcare professionals. 

To ease the shortages of physicians and other health care professionals by retaining those who already practice in Hawaiʻi and recruiting those who are in medical residency training programs on the continent, the Governor’s Office, John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), the Healthcare Association of Hawai‘i (HAH), the State Department of Health, and others developed HELP. The 2023 Hawaiʻi State Legislature provided an unprecedented $30 million over two years in educational loan repayment to health professionals licensed or otherwise certified to practice in and provide care to patients in Hawai‘i.

HELP builds on the decade-old, federally funded Hawaiʻi State Loan Repayment Program. The HELP program reaches more healthcare professionals in one year than the prior program reached in the past 10 years. In exchange for two years of full-time service in Hawaiʻi, high-demand healthcare professionals will qualify for loan repayments up to a maximum of $50,000 per year. The eligible amount varies depending on the profession, location of practice, and educational indebtedness. All must provide care to, or work for organizations that have at least 30% of their patients receiving public insurance.

The first application window opened on September 9, 2023 and closed on October 2, 2023. On Wednesday, just in time for Christmas, 492 awardees received acceptance letters. 

“It is so rewarding to see this program come to fruition, as it was this type of assistance that first brought me to Hawaiʻi so many years ago,” said Governor Josh Green, M.D. “I saw first-hand how desperately needed medical care is, especially in rural areas of the islands, and for underserved populations. HELP will prove to be a great start toward decreasing our longstanding and challenging shortage of healthcare professionals across the state.”

The first HELP cohort includes close to 300 primary care and behavioral health providers across the state, 90 other specialties or professions practicing in rural areas, and about 40 medical residents in training. Retaining these professionals ensures Hawaiʻi will not lose them to other states. 

Interim Dean of JABSOM, Dr. Lee Buenconsejo-Lum is excited that about 110 physicians, including 66 in primary care specialties, and many others in high-demand specialties are getting HELP. The average indebtedness of physician applicants is about $185,000, with 20% having more than $300,000 left to pay off. “The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on many, especially those in private practice. Most have not fully recovered and face difficult decisions about staying in Hawaiʻi. This program helps us keep local doctors and other providers here despite our very high cost of living and myriad other challenges.” 

Marc and Lynne Benioff are providing major philanthropic support for HELP with an additional $5 million over two years, to help retain health professionals on Hawaiʻi Island. Out of the first 400 recipients, 77 from Hawaiʻi Island will receive loan repayment from the state funds. An additional 65 Hawaiʻi Island providers will receive funding from Marc and Lynne Benioff in this first round. The healthcare professionals provide badly needed primary care, behavioral health, and specialty care.

"We are so proud of this amazing first group of HELP awardees and pleased to be able to support bringing an additional 65 providers to Hawaiʻi Island for essential medical services," said Marc and Lynne Benioff, who recently reached the milestone of $100 million in donations to Hawaiʻi's local organizations and programs over the past 20 years. "Nothing is more important than the health of our community, and access to care for all who need it." 

The HELP initiative has generated significant interest from healthcare professionals looking to stay in Hawaiʻi, and to others on the continent who are looking to return to Hawaiʻi. HAH President and CEO Hilton Raethel says this program, championed by Governor Green and funded by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, is a game changer in terms of addressing healthcare workforce shortages across the state of Hawaiʻi.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the healthcare workforce shortage in Hawaiʻi. Hawaiʻi needs more doctors, behavioral health professionals, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, especially in rural areas, to take care of the people of Hawaiʻi. We are very grateful to the state legislature, and the Governor, for their support of this first-in-the-nation program which provides a model for addressing healthcare workforce shortages in states across the country,” Raethel said.

For more information, please visit the Hawaiʻi HELP website.