How One Federal Program Is Striking a Deal with Healthcare Providers to Offer Addiction Treatment to Patients in Need

Doctors help hand.

Awareness for the U.S. drug addiction epidemic is widespread, yet still, our nation struggles in finding practical solutions to the drug problem. 

For more than two decades, the United States has been the unwitting leader of a prescription opioid addiction epidemic, a heroin crisis, an upsurge in synthetic opioid misuse, and several other addiction problems.

As the addiction crisis seems to grow and grow, surging forward no matter what we try to do to stop it, we’ve had to get creative in our methodology for tackling the problem. 

Some of our proposed solutions tend to do more harm than good (such as medicating addicts with pharmaceutical maintenance drugs that do little more than substitute one drug for another) but other proposed solutions are pretty genius.

Here’s a great example of that. A federal loan repayment organization just announced a program which will repay significant portions of medical student loans to physicians who are willing to work in addiction treatment in underserved areas that need help badly. And just like that, doctors now have a significant incentive to help drug addicts and alcoholics who live in areas where there is currently a minimal opportunity for help.

The Details – One Program Is Giving Incentives to Doctors to Help Struggling Addicts

The National Health Service Corps is setting a bold precedent by offering repayment programs of up to $75,000 of student loans. In exchange, doctors receiving the repayment will have to work for three years in underserved, high-need areas with their focus being specifically on addiction treatment for patients in that area.

“[The repayment program is] meant to incentivize clinicians who are working in the substance use disorder-opioid space to either stay and continue to provide services in areas that are suffering from a shortage of providers or to go and work in those areas.”

In a comment from Dr. Luis Padilla, the Director of the National Health Service Corps, “[The repayment program is] meant to incentivize clinicians who are working in the substance use disorder-opioid space to either stay and continue to provide services in areas that are suffering from a shortage of providers or to go and work in those areas.”

The repayment program is a trade-off. The doctor gets $75,000 repaid on his or her student loan bill, and he or she works in a designated locale for three years in exchange, providing addiction treatment services to struggling addicts.

As for the types of areas chosen for doctors to work in, The Health Resources & Services Administration has well-defined criteria for what counts as an “underserved and high-need” area. Doctors applying for the loan repayment program can view options of areas where they could do their three years service, and they’re able to have some say in where they go to provide their services.

Not only do the applying physicians have some choice in where they go, but they have some voice in the types of services they provide, too. Here are some of the facilities that doctors can work in, cited verbatim from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • SAMHSA-certified outpatient treatment programs (OTPs)
  • Office-based opioid treatment facilities (OBOTs)
  • Non-opioid substance use disorder treatment facilities (SUD treatment facilities)
  • Federally Qualified Health Care Centers (FQHCs)
  • Rural Health Clinics (RHCs)
  • American Indian Health facilities and Indian Health Service (IHS) hospitals
  • FQHC Look-Alikes
  • State or federal correctional facilities
  • Critical Access Hospitals
  • Community health centers
  • State or local health departments
  • Community outpatient facilities
  • Private practices
  • School-based clinics
  • Mobile units and free clinics

The goal is a clear one. Our country is riddled with underserved and high-need locales. These locales are geographic areas where substance abuse rates are particularly prominent, yet access to workable treatment is limited or altogether unavailable. The program aims to put more addiction specialists in those areas.

A Call to Action

Doctor meeting a patient outside.

The student loan repayment program will create a helping hand for thousands of addicts across America, but it won’t, by itself, solve the addiction problem. 

In a direct quote from Israel, one of the directors for the program, “In the first year, we’re setting out to get as many awards as we can. What we’re hoping to do is make at least 600 awards in our first year, and we believe if we can go beyond that, we will.”

So the program will apply to about 600 doctors or other related health care professionals; like Pharmacists, Registered Nurses and Substance Use Disorder Counselors in year one, which is good news. But we can’t rest there and leave it up to the National Health Service Corps to solve the entire addiction crisis for us. Incentivizing 600 doctors to qualified health care professionals to work in addiction-heavy areas is a start, but what else can we do?

How Else Can We Make Helping Addicts a Priority?

It’s inspiring when one group comes up with an innovative, creative way to tackle a substance abuse problem. It’s encouraging because then we think, “How else could we tackle the addiction crisis?”

Here are some creative ideas:

  • We could implement educational programs within our schools to teach our kids, teachers, administrators, and parents about the risks of drug use. Our schools are our greatest untapped resource for preventing drug use early on. If kids knew the dangers of drugs and the dangers of alcohol misuse, they’d be less likely to experiment at such a young age.
  • We could shift the way we treat physical pain. Much of addiction in the 21st-century comes from every-day patients who struggle with chronic pain, who take addictive painkillers at their doctor’s recommendation, and who then become dependent on those pills and who start self-medicating on them to avoid withdrawal symptoms. What if we shifted our focus to one which addresses the lion’s share of pain problems with non-addictive pain relief methods such as natural supplements, herbs, spices, physical exercise, massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care, physical therapy, and so on? What if we demanded that health insurance companies cover these alternative approaches to pain relief, instead of just paying for opioid painkillers?
  • Another idea is to shift our stance from one of incarceration of drug users to the treatment of drug users. Our nation still carries the torch of the Nixon-era “War on Drugs” dogma. We don’t need to decriminalize or legalize drugs. But a life-changing shift would be to take our nation from one which punishes drug users with jail time to one which helps drug users get better with addiction treatment programs.

We have a lot of work ahead. The National Health Service Corps is setting the bar by creating innovative ways to help addicts in need. How can we take inspiration from the example they set?


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.