HALIFAX — Canada’s finance minister highlighted increased support for a government program easing the student debt burden of medical professionals during a post-budget stop in Halifax Tuesday.
Chrystia Freeland said the $26.2-million commitment over four years in the federal budget is aimed at addressing the shortage of health-care professionals in rural and remote communities.
Beginning in 2023, nurses who choose to work in underserved rural areas could see up to $30,000 in loan forgiveness, while the figure increases to as much as $60,000 for doctors.
Speaking at Dalhousie University's medical school, Freeland said the assistance can help in provinces such as Nova Scotia where the wait-list to see a family doctor is “too long.”
“Far too many rural communities across this province still lack the primary health care they need,” said Freeland. “We need to encourage health-care professionals to stay and work in Nova Scotia.”
About 88,300 Nova Scotians are on the province’s primary care wait-list, which hit a new record high on April 1. That number is up about three per cent from March.
Deep Saini, president of Dalhousie University, said supporting the availability of health professionals in rural communities across Canada is a crucial part of ensuring a “robust and resilient” health-care system.
Sani noted that Freeland’s announcement came on what’s known as match day, when medical students find out where they will be completing their residency training.
“This is a significant day that defines the next several years in their medical careers,” he said. “Today’s announcement provides an important initiative for graduating students to consider the many rewards of careers in rural and remote areas of Canada.”
Maggie Flemming, a second-year medical student at Dalhousie, said she believes partial forgiveness of student loans makes a significant difference, given the high cost of schooling.
“Options are really everything when you are facing the amount of debt that we have. It’s very common for medical students to have $200,000 to $300,000 or more of debt when they graduate,” said Flemming, who attended Freeland's announcement. “Having the option to go to a rural community and have some of that loan forgiven is very appealing.”
Flemming, 27, said she will likely be in her late 30s before she ultimately has to decide where she will practise. “For me, (rural practice) is definitely an aspect that should be taken into consideration,” she said in an interview.
Freeland said the government is also mounting a review to ensure that what is defined as a rural community under the program does not leave out communities that are in need of help.
There are also plans to expand the current list of professionals who are eligible for loan forgiveness, with details to be released in the coming year.
According to the federal government, nearly 5,500 doctors and nurses benefited from the loan forgiveness program in 2019-20.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 12, 2022.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press