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State sees surplus of medical school financial aid

Strict federal guidelines for medical school financial aid programs have left the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission with more than a quarter-million dollars and no one to give it to.

On Monday, higher education officials asked members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability to consider giving them more flexibility to work with the feds and help state medical students pay off their debts.

"Our people aren't using our money to go to school," Dr. Robert Walker, the commission's vice chancellor for health sciences, said during a legislative interim meeting Monday afternoon.

"We don't need more money; we may just need more flexibility to adapt."

Speaking after the meeting, Walker said both the state and federal governments offer loan forgiveness programs to medical students who agree to work in underserved areas.

A few years ago, the federal government changed the criteria for its programs so any student receiving money with post-graduation obligations from a state would not be eligible for any federal dollars.

Walker said that has caused many state medical students to opt for federal programs, since those typically pay more money: Some federal loan forgiveness programs pay up to $200,000 over a doctor's medical career.

Meanwhile, the state's fund for medical school financial aid continues to grow. Walker said a small percentage of each West Virginia medical school student's tuition goes into the pot. That has left the state with more than $750,000 collected over the last 17 years.

Walker said the commission has tried to work with the feds to allow students to accept both state and federal monies but have been unable to reach an agreement.

"They haven't been mean about it, but the rules have just changed so much," he said.

He said the commission plans to submit a bill that would fix the problem when the Legislature convenes next month.

Also Monday, Walker told lawmakers West Virginia is doing a good job retaining doctors who are trained here.

"West Virginians like to come back to West Virginia," he said.

According to a commission report released Monday, 39 percent of doctors graduating from West Virginia institutions set up their practices in the state.

Walker said many of those doctors stayed in West Virginia to complete their residency training, which usually influences their decision on where to practice.

In 2007, 71 percent of state medical school graduates who also received their residency training in West Virginia decided to stay here, according to the report.

Only 14 percent of West Virginia medical school graduates who completed residencies elsewhere returned to the Mountain State.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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