Health system helps doctors and nurses cut student loan burdens

As Georgia braces for a cold-weather coronavirus surge that could collide with the flu and send patients flooding into hospitals, facilities across the state are worried they don’t have enough nurses to treat their sickest patients.

PHILADELPHIA — So many employees were stressed out about student loans that Temple University Health System this fall offered a new benefit — a concierge service to help them qualify for a much-touted federal program that can massively cut their debt.

Trouble is, help from the program, known as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) venture, has been notoriously difficult to get. Meant to assist new doctors, nurses, teachers, soldiers, firefighters and others in public-service jobs, the program has so far been largely a flop.

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Critics, including several attorneys general who have launched lawsuits on behalf of student debtors, says mismanagement by federal education bureaucrats and misinformation from big loan servers has kept admission to the program to a trickle.

Under the plan, borrowers who make all payments on their loans for a decade have their remaining debt wiped out. But since the program granting reductions in 2017, fewer than 2% of an already small pool of applicants have been approved for a cut in their debt.

So private software developers have stepped into the breach.

In September, Temple’s hospital system hired Savi, a data-driven nonprofit founded in 2017 in Washington, D.C., to give the system’s loan-laden staff a helping hand by making sure they make loan payments on time or assisting them in refinancing for lower interest rates.

Savi’s help is available free to Temple employees, including physicians, nurses and administrators, and their family members.

Karen Cunningham, the system’s manager of HR Communications, Wellbeing and Engagement, said the program has proven useful not only for former students carrying loans, but also for their parents who work at Temple Health. Many took on debt themselves to get their children through schooling.

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“They should be planning for retirement,” Cunningham said. “It’s a great benefit for employees who have college kids and carrying debt. I’m one of them.”

By her estimate, the data concierge helped her drive down her yearly costs by $1,800 as she pays down two college loans for her children.

So far only about 200 employees have signed up since Savi launched at the 10,000-employee system, according to Frederick Berger, Temple Health’s director of benefits and pensions. Still, he sees it as a draw for future hires and a magnet to keep existing staff.

“Our recruiters were very excited to discuss it with potential docs and nurses,” Berger said. It will likely be a strong retention tool as well.”

The bungled rollout of the federal loan forgiveness program to help nonprofit workers is another element driving an ongoing debate about the crushing burden of college debt in a nation where 45 million borrower owe $1.7 trillion in loans. Payments of such loans were suspended this spring due to the pandemic, but are to resume next month.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised to overhaul the loan-forgiveness program. Under his revision, he would newly provide borrowers in the program with $10,000 in debt relief annually for up to five years of public-service employment.

Even more broadly, he would strike $10,000 from the debt of every federal loan borrower. For borrowers earning less than $125,000, he would wipe out all federal undergraduate debt for from public colleges and private ones with mostly minority students.

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The loan-forgiveness program was established in 2007 under President George W. Bush, but it really kicked into gear in 2017 when those doing public service work who made 10 years of on-time payments first became eligible for debt reduction.

But only a small share of those received any forgiveness.

Qualifying workers have been improperly denied help for reasons that ranged from the fact they had been given incorrect information from loan servicers to issues with how they had consolidated loans.

Some borrowers made payments dutifully for years while working in a job that the U.S. Department of Education had promised was an eligible form of public service — only to be told that the payments did not qualify.

And some debtors lost eligibility because of paperwork omissions when they switched jobs.

“What (Savi) does is help make sure people stay in compliance with the program,” said Elizabeth Anderson with TIAA, the large retirement plan for academics and nonprofits, which has a stake in Savi. “Savi helps people work toward 120 qualifying monthly payments.”

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