Want to Thank Frontline Health Workers? Let’s Forgive Their Student Debt

For our COVID-19 health heroes, financial relief is urgently needed and well-earned

07 Jun 2020 | 05:13

Living in New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, we are firsthand witnesses to the suffering caused by deadly disease. In this darkness, we have also seen our community band together to fight this – including the unparalleled dedication of health care workers.

After caring for patients during extended shifts, some health professionals go to temporary housing or isolate themselves in their homes, so they can keep their families safe from potential infection. We have never been more dependent on a strong healthcare system. We cannot eliminate the risk that doctors, nurses and other health care workers become ill, but we can eliminate another enormous burden that predates the pandemic – student loan debt.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical school students graduate with a median student loan debt of $200,000. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing estimates that nursing school students finish their programs with between $40,000 and $54,999 in student loan debt. They take on this debt to serve their communities. In return, I believe that we have an obligation to ensure that these men and women are relieved of the debt they incurred to train for this critical work – in graduate degree programs or other professional education programs.

At the height of the pandemic in our city, New Yorkers came together every day at 7 p.m. to cheer and applaud frontline health care workers at the end of their shifts. It was a small way to show our thanks to the medical professionals who are risking their safety every single day to care for the sickest among us. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of June 2, 2020, more than 67,600 health care workers in the U.S. had contracted COVID-19, and hundreds have died.

Nevertheless, frontline health care professionals continue to work in especially dangerous conditions. On 9/11, our heroes ran into burning buildings, now they are walking into hospitals. We need to do more to support them. These heroes are the doctors, nurses, and health care professionals in emergency departments and ICUs; medical residents and interns; and those who have abandoned their usual areas of specialty to lend a hand so that all patients can get the care they need. This unprecedented moment calls for an unprecedented effort and our response must reflect that.

We must forgive their student loans. Last month, I introduced H.R. 6720, the Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act, that would do just that by establishing a loan forgiveness program for frontline health care workers to cover all loans taken out for medical or professional training. An array of health care workers would be eligible to apply to the program, including doctors, nurses, lab workers conducting COVID-19 tests, medical researchers developing treatment and vaccines, mental health professionals, home health workers, EMTs, and telehealth providers.

I strongly support student loan debt cancellation for all, but seeing what our health care heroes have done over just the last few weeks in a time of crisis for the entire nation has shown that for these particular frontline workers, financial relief is urgently needed and well-earned. They should not have to worry about their financial security on top of the worries that come with fighting COVID-19 day in and day out. This is a burden we can relieve right now and it is an investment in the health care system and the people who are taking care of all of us.

Although there are many uncertainties about the road to recovery and what our new “normal” will look like, one thing is clear; simply telling our frontline healthcare heroes “thank you” is not enough. Providing them with hazard pay, while imperative, is not enough.

The outrageous costs of higher education necessitate reform, and there is no better place for the Congress to start than by helping those who have done so much to help all of us.