White House extends student loan relief, AOA continues push for NHSC inclusion

August 12, 2021
The AOA continues its support of optometry students, advocating for a temporary suspension of student loan debt due to the pandemic, as well as a long-term avenue toward loan forgiveness and repayment.
White House extends student loan relief, AOA continues push for NHSC inclusion

Even as optometry students receive one final extension of the federal student loan payment pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the AOA advocates for both immediate and long-term opportunities to alleviate ballooning student loan debt.

On Aug. 6, the Biden administration announced the moratorium on federal student loan repayments would now expire on Jan. 31, 2022, extending the loan payment freeze that was originally set to end on Sept. 30, 2021. Benefiting over 40 million federal student loan borrowers, the pause includes the following relief measures for eligible loans: 

  • The suspension of loan payments.
  • A 0% interest rate.
  • Halted collections on defaulted loans.

This final payment freeze extension does come with a “definitive end date,” the U.S. Department of Education notes, buying borrowers an additional four months to plan for the resumption of payments and reduce the risk of delinquency and defaults. The original freeze came under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and was subsequently extended in 2021.

“The payment pause has been a lifeline that allowed millions of Americans to focus on their families, health and finances instead of student loans during the national emergency,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement. “As our nation’s economy continues to recover from a deep hole, this final extension will give students and borrowers the time they need to plan for restart and ensure a smooth pathway back to repayment.”

That “deep hole” caused by the pandemic’s widespread disruption affected optometry students in countless ways, straining not only their education but also their job market and ability to practice upon graduation. Given how the average optometry student’s loan debt at graduation is close to $200,000, the AOA and the American Optometric Student Association (AOSA) have been in lockstep urging the new administration to consider solutions for student debt hardship.

Now, as the payment freeze extension that the AOA and AOSA determinedly advocated for addresses the immediate concerns of federal student loan borrowers, optometry’s advocates work toward gaining a more permanent and impactful opportunity for the thousands of optometry school students each year.

Leveraging the National Health Service Corps to repay loans, increase eye care access

Joining alongside the National Optometric Association (NOA), the National Optometric Student Association (NOSA) and the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO), the AOA and AOSA recently advocated for a win-win solution that not only addresses optometry students’ loan debt but also delivers critical eye care to underserved communities and creates a positive step toward bolstering access and equity.

In a July 21 letter to Sec. Cardona, optometry’s advocates urged the Department of Education to coordinate with the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) and initiate rulemaking that includes doctors of optometry within the administration’s flagship health workforce program, the National Health Services Corps (NHSC). The NHSC offers doctors and clinicians the opportunity to work and have student loans repaid in exchange for providing two years of service in urban, rural or tribal communities with limited access to care.

“The NHSC is a powerful recruiting tool for health centers and has been shown to be successful in both recruiting and retaining providers to care for patients in underserved communities,” reads the letter, signed by the presidents of the AOA, AOSA, NOA, NOSA and ASCO. “If we are to build a more inclusive and accessible health care system that employs individuals with a wide range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, action must be taken to reduce student debt and increase loan forgiveness opportunities through the [NHSC].”

Currently, optometry is not eligible for the NHSC loan forgiveness program despite originally being included at its inception. This omission is glaring, especially considering that optometry delivers up to 80% of all primary vision and eye health care through Medicaid and medical eye care to over 6 million Medicare beneficiaries annually.

Noting the criticality of good vision and eye health, the letter emphasizes that optometry’s inclusion in the NHSC program would be a positive first step toward addressing access and equity concerns in both health care and education. Such is the case, advocates pointed to studies that showed Black students hold substantially higher debt by age 25 as compared with white peers and how the current lack of access to primary eye care in health centers may exacerbate disparities that already exist.

“Vision and eye care are important components of primary care, and we encourage the Administration to take swift action to include doctors of optometry in the NHSC in order to encourage primary eye care providers to practice in underserved communities, to increase access to needed care for patients and to leverage current federal programs to support even more students and borrowers,” the letter concludes.

For over a decade, the AOA, AOSA, ASCO and other organizations have advocated for HRSA to reevaluate optometry’s eligibility for the NHSC, even emphasizing policy briefs and recommendations from the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) and American Public Health Association that demonstrate optometry’s utility in rural and underserved communities.

Only weeks prior to the July 21 letter, the AOA, AOSA, NOA and NOSA joined with the NRHA and Association of Clinicians for the Underserved (ACU) on a letter to Ambassador Susan Rice, assistant to the president for domestic policy, also encouraging the need for optometry’s inclusion in the NHSC program.

The AOA, AOSA and other stakeholders continue to engage the current administration on efforts to mitigate the toll of optometry students’ loan debt. For more information about student loan debt, access sponsored content available at AOAExcel®.

Support the AOA’s advocacy

Help the AOA continue its advocacy on behalf of optometry students and new graduates by getting involved and helping optometry’s advocates keep up the momentum. Here’s how: 

  • Visit AOA’s Action Center to learn more about this and other priority federal issues. Or text “NHSC” to 855.465.5124 to encourage optometry’s reinstatement in the NHSC.
  • Become an AOA-PAC investor, one of the easiest and most effective ways to make an impact in the AOA’s ongoing advocacy efforts.

Student Loan Refinancing

AOA members in good standing are eligible for a 0.25% rate discount when refinancing with AOAExcel®’s endorsed partner, Laurel Road.
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