There’s a free ride waiting for students at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC), but what they don’t pay for with money will be paid back later with a commitment to Mississippi.
Thanks to a law passed by legislators this year, UMC will award up to 20 full scholarships — a value of about $22,000 per year per student — to students who agree to practice family medicine for 10 years in a medically underserved area of the state. Students receive a free education, and underserved areas get the doctors they desperately need.
The man behind the plan is Rep. Herbert “Herb” Frierson of Poplarville, whose own town was in need of doctors just a few years ago. Frierson introduced the scholarship bill during the 2000 session, and it easily passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in May.
Even in a tight budget year, Frierson said the bill was an attractive one because it does not cost taxpayers a cent. Tobacco trust fund money will pay the scholarships, and students who don’t honor the contract will pay the loan back with the same interest earned by the fund.
Frierson and other legislators hope the scholarship will entice medical students to enter an area of the state they might not have considered before. Their choices will definitely not be limited, as indicated by a federal government report that 60 of Mississippi’s 82 counties suffer a shortage of primary medical care. The underserved areas designated for the scholarship program must still be ironed out by a special committee, but there will be plenty of places to practice, assures UMC vice chancellor Dr. Wallace Conerly.
“The determination of critical need areas will likely parallel the federal government’s designation of medically underserved areas,” he said. “That will include a significant number of towns.”
Conerly will chair the Medical Care Critical Needs Committee to determine the state’s critical need areas. Other members are the executive director of the Department of Health, the executive director of the Division of Medicaid, the president of the Mississippi State Medical Association (or designee), the president of the Mississippi Hospital Association (or designee), the president of the Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians, and the executive director of the Mississippi Primary Health Care Association.
Dr. Morcela Mora, a family practitioner in Poplarville, describes the new scholarship program as very generous and believes it will help bring new doctors to towns like his. Mora began practicing in Poplarville nine years ago when one commuting physician served the town.
Frierson credits longtime Poplarville attorney Lampton Williams with getting the scholarship ball rolling. Disappointed by the poor showing of physicians in towns across the state, Williams talked to Frierson on numerous occasions about the state’s lack of health coverage and what could be done to help the situation.
“There’s a need for doctors anywhere you look in a small town under 10,000 population,” said Williams.
When the tobacco trust fund entered the picture, Frierson felt sure they could make it happen.
The new law actually amends an old law with the same intent but not as much punch. The old law only allowed for paid tuition, which is about $6,900 a year, and required graduates to stay five years in an underserved area. By lengthening the stay, legislators hope these young doctors will plant their roots in the community and decide to stay much longer than 10 years.
“That was the whole point that the Legislature wanted to make, that if they practiced that long in an area, they would stay,” said Conerly, who worked with Frierson on fashioning the bill before it went before the Legislature.
The old law also did not allow the scholarship recipients to practice within 25 miles of a major hospital. That rule was erased, because, according to Frierson, there are many areas near hospitals in critical need of doctors.
Frierson believes that the new law, coupled with last year’s increase in Medicaid reimbursements, should help to bring more physicians to residents of towns who have gone without for too long.
Conerly agreed. “It’s a wonderful program to benefit the medically underserved areas of the state and I predict a significant increase.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Kelly Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.