Spitzer proposes loan relief to add doctors in underserved areas

By MICHAEL GORMLEY | Associated Press Writer

Gov. Eliot Spitzer wants the state to pay off the student loans of physicians who agree to serve rural and urban areas without enough doctors, an administration official said Tuesday.

Spitzer is also considering a $1 billion Upstate Revitalization Fund and other measures to renew downtowns and attract businesses. And he may seek to name the Triborough Bridge connecting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the slain Democratic presidential candidate.

The cost of the initiatives won’t be part of Wednesday’s State of the State speech, which is expected to include big ideas for creating high-tech jobs and transforming the state’s economy through higher education. Spending details will come Jan. 22, when Spitzer proposes his 2009-09 budget to the Legislature, which should include how to deal with a $4.3 billion deficit.

“We are facing choppy waters as we look out at the national landscape, economically,” Spitzer said Tuesday. “But we have enormous demands here in the state, enormous obligations to invest in education and health care and infrastructure. Jobs, jobs, jobs is what we are going to be focusing on.”

The Senate’s Republican majority, which has clashed with the Democratic governor since June, has its own “Upstate Now” proposal. It would more broadly apply tax breaks and incentives to retain and attract employers. But despite some similarities with Spitzer’s proposal, the Senate plan didn’t become law last year.

Senate majority spokesman Scott Reif said the Senate could support a local property tax cap under consideration in the Spitzer administration. That would restrict local school and government spending and allow state subsidies designed to lower local tax bills to have a greater effect.

The program to ease a doctor shortage, if approved and funded by the Legislature, is aimed at relieving a shortage of medical care in the northern part of the state as well as inner cities, the administration official said on the condition of anonymity because the speech wasn’t yet finished.

“Doctors Across New York” would provide grants to repay student loans and other unspecified inducements to reach a goal of providing a family doctor for every New York household, the official said.

The program will also address the problem of medical students leaving college and training with loan debt of more than $100,000. The official had no estimate of the program’s cost.

In the Adirondack State Park, there are only dozens of primary care physicians serving the six-million-acre forest land, which is bigger in area than some states. Health care administrators have said they are having a tougher time than ever recruiting and retaining doctors _ one hospital this year pleaded for new doctors through mass mailings.

The shortage is not isolated to primary care doctors and includes the full range of medical specialties from pediatricians to oncologists. The University at Albany’s Center for Health Workforce Studies reported there is roughly one doctor for every 535 residents in the counties that make up the bulk of the Adirondacks compared with one doctor for every 311 people in the state as a whole.

“This is exactly what we’re calling for to head off a crisis,” said Dr. John Rugge, chief executive officer of the Hudson Headwaters Health Network in the Adirondacks. “We know without this kind of program, doctors are going to disappear from the North Country.”

A survey of hospitals by the Healthcare Association of New York, a powerful lobbyist, found hospitals needed 845 more primary care physicians, surgeons and specialists outside New York City.

“The governor’s plan to address the physician shortage is both needed and welcome, especially in underserved urban areas and in much of upstate where the problem is most acute,” said HANYS spokesman William Van Slyke. “If we don’t address this issue quickly, the problem will only worsen, leading to longer waits and more distant travel for patients who need critical care in a number of specialties.”

The Senate and Assembly majorities are reviewing the proposal.
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