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New bill would forgive medical school debt for COVID-19 health workers

Many still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A lawmaker from a COVID-battered state has introduced a bill to forgive student loan debt for health care workers treating patients on the coronavirus front line, many of whom still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars from medical school.

The legislation comes in response to doctors and nurses speaking out against hazard pay, a 50% bonus Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed the federal government give front-line workers for risking their lives during the pandemic.

"Essential public workers are the ones on the front lines every day carrying us through this crisis," Cuomo said in April. "We must ensure their efforts and sacrifice are appropriately recognized."

But a 50% bonus won't go far for many young doctors, who on average leave medical school with $200,000 in debt, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

"I'm looking at a student loan debt of $318,000," Dr. Manuel Penton III, age 32, previously told ABC News. "That few extra thousand dollars, while it may make a big difference to some people, for me, most of that money is going to go back into paying off my student loan debt."

The idea is catching on. Last month, more than 500,000 people signed a MoveOn petition asking Congress to include student loan debt forgiveness for doctors in the next stimulus bill.

At the same time, dozens of health care organizations, including the American Medical Association, the country's largest association of physicians, wrote a letter to Congress last month asking for student loan forgiveness of at least $20,000 for residents and early graduated medical students whose debt averages over $200,000. The AMA has also endorsed The Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act.

The Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act, which Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced Tuesday, goes even further.

If passed, the bill would forgive all federal and private student loans for medial professionals who are directly interacting with COVID-19 patients, including front-line doctors, nurses, aids, medical residents, interns and technicians. It would also apply to researchers working on COVID-19 treatments and cures.

"We own more than thanks and cheers at 7 p.m.," Maloney said during a Tuesday press briefing. "We have an obligation to ensure men and women are relieved of the debt they incurred to train for this critical work."

A House bill proposed in March included more widespread student loan forgiveness, but capped it at $30,000 and was applied only to public loans. A targeted approach aimed at doctors and nurses would be more likely to pass, Maloney said.

The new bill would have no cap on debt relief granted, and any final determinations on individuals' eligibility would be determined by a commission.

In addition to supporting front-line doctors and nurses, Maloney said that offering loan forgiveness could help address medical worker shortages in hard-hit COVID-19 hotspots like New York City. Debt forgiveness would also alleviate the fear doctors and nurses have about dying from COVID-19 and leaving their families to pay off six-figure debts.

A number of Penton's colleagues in Brooklyn have been infected with COVID-19. Two have died.

"There are so many emotions that go along with that," Penton said. "We can't go to the funerals. I can't even find where the gravesite is. There is no sense of closure."

Maloney also spoke about the tragic deaths of an emergency room doctor and an EMT, both of whom died by suicide last month after treating an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients.

"We need to do more to support them," she said.

Debt forgiveness, Penton said, was a tangible way to help.

"Finally, people are coming together and cheering for us and care about the position we're being put in," he said. "There's no argument about what would support us the most."

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