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Elevating the Safety Net aims to solve doctor shortage

LOS ANGELES – The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that the United States could have a shortage of up to 120,000 doctors by 2030. 

The shortage could have a disproportionately negative effect on folks in low-income neighborhoods. 

A public health care plan in Los Angeles, Elevating the Safety Net, has launched an ambitious program to recruit primary care doctors to work in vulnerable communities. 

Los Angeles projects that it will be short 8,800 physicians in 12 years, which would be devastating. 

John Baackes, CEO, of L.A. Care Health Plan, knew he had to do something. 

"You either move the people to the doctors or you put some doctors where the people are, and we're attempting to do the latter," Baackes said. 

Baackes got his board to give 5% of L.A. Care's reserve, about $31 million, for a three-pronged attack on the doctor shortage. 

Acknowledging that medical school costs push students with huge debt into specialties that pay more, L.A. Care gave eight students full ride scholarships and recently added eight more. All are minorities wanting to give back.

"I definitely want to work in underserved communities, that's the place I came from. My family still lives in South Central L.A., suffering from the different disparities that exist," said Parris Diaz, a Charles R. Drew University medical student.

"It's really personal in a sense that it's what my parents, my parents right now, even suffer through. I'm going to school to become a good doctor and potentially a community advocate," said Nguyen Pham, a David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA student.

Second, L.A. Care's loan recruitment program will repay new physician debt up to $180,000 if the doctor continues to serve in the Safety Net for three years. 

Third, network clinics get grants of $125,000 for each new doctor recruited. 

Baackes said the program has already had an impact, because 32 new primary care doctors and clinics have applied.

"The payoff is a long way off, but we figure we've got to devote a portion of these resources to that as well," Baackes said.

Baackes hopes his board will make the same $31 million commitment to Elevating the Safety Net for the next five years. That would mean 40 more medical school scholarships and placement of up to 400 doctors. 

Thanks to billionaire Robert F. Smith, all of the Morehouse college students graduating in 2019 will have their college debts paid off. 

Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot, donated $100 million to pay tuition for every NYU medical student.