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Bank to aid health centers

School-loan program aims to lure doctors

Bank of America will donate $5 million to mostly repay medical school loans of primary care doctors who agree to practice in Eastern Massachusetts community health centers, which are bracing for thousands of additional patients who will have coverage under the state's new health insurance law.

The program will help repay the loans of medical students, residents, and a small number of doctors already practicing in health centers, if they agree to provide primary care for at least two years in one of 23 community health centers or for Boston Health Care for the Homeless.

The fund will repay up to $25,000 of medical debt a year for three years; the maximum repayment amount of $75,000 is 57.7 percent of the average medical school debt of $130,000.

Healthcare executives and state officials, including Governor Deval Patrick, disclosed the program yesterday during a press conference at the North End Community Health Center, saying they hope it will attract as many as 50 doctors to practice in community health centers.

An aide to Senate President Robert Travaglini said legislators and the governor are discussing whether to provide another $5 million for loan repayment for primary care doctors in the budget.

Many Massachusetts residents have trouble finding a primary care doctor who is accepting new patients, and doctors and healthcare executives are worried that the situation will worsen when health insurance coverage becomes mandatory for most residents in July. Thousands of uninsured residents will have new coverage for primary care visits, which probably will lead many of them to visit doctors for physical exams and other routine problems. Now, without insurance, they would have to pay for those visits entirely themselves.

Dr. James Mongan, president of Partners HealthCare, which will oversee the program, said yesterday that the shortage of primary care doctors results from fewer medical students choosing internal medicine, pediatrics, and other primary care specialties; 20 percent of US medical students went into internal medicine in 2005, compared to 55 percent in 1998.

As a result, he said, the average wait for a new patient to get an appointment with a primary care doctor in Massachusetts is nearly five weeks.

The $5 million grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation includes $500,000 for Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's hospitals, which are part of the Partners provider network, to study how to attract more medical students into primary care. The remaining $4.5 million will go for loan repayment. The 23 health centers that are part of the program are affiliated with Partners, although some are also affiliated with other hospital networks.

The bank, Partners, and the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, will work out details of how doctors can qualify for the program.

James Hunt, president of the league, said about 10 percent of primary care positions are vacant at the state's health centers. On top of the shortage of primary care doctors, he said health centers face additional hurdles because they cannot afford to pay doctors what they would make in private practice or at a large teaching hospital. Community health center primary care doctors earn in the low $100,000s annually, he said.

"We have been very concerned about the growing number of vacancies and the growing amount of time it takes to fill those vacancies," Hunt said.

The $5 million grant is the largest Bank of America has made in New England since it acquired Fleet Boston Financial in 2004. Despite worries that the sale to an out-of-town company would erode charitable giving, Anne Finucane, Bank of America's chief marketing officer, said the bank has increased its charitable giving in Massachusetts every year since the merger.

Keith Reed of the Globe staff contributed to this report.