The College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (HR 4137), passed and became public law in August 2008 authorizing the US Secretary of Education to forgive a portion of qualifying student loan debt to physical therapists practicing in areas of national need. Just one week later, the amendment was broadened to include occupational therapists after a colloquy on the House floor and AOTA staff involvement. (Read more here.)
But occupational therapists are still waiting for the help to kick in. The horrific economy and the bailouts of '09 are slowing down the process. AOTA, ASHA, APTA and local Congressmen are working toward getting the money to those who need it as soon as possible. Tim Nanof, MSW, federal affairs manager at AOTA has pointed out that they have gotten the first leg of this victory completed by getting occupational therapy named a frontline health profession in Congress.
The 800-page bill is focused on lowering tuition costs and reorganizing the financial aid process. Among its many provisions are new penalties for states that cut their contributions to higher education, protections for prospective student loan borrowers, proposals for more affordable textbooks and expanded funding options for low-income and non-traditional students.
H.R. 4137 would reauthorize and amend most postsecondary education programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965. The act would affect direct spending by changing the eligibility of students and institutions for the federal student loan programs, creating two new mandatory grant programs for institutions of higher education and amending several existing mandatory grant programs.
The bill also would amend and extend through 2014 the authorization of appropriations for the discretionary programs under the Higher Education Act. The act intentions are to create several new student and institutional aid programs and amend several other acts.
Tess Mullen, communications director for U.S. Congressman Jason Altmire, who has played a key role in the bill's development as a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said OTs will benefit from this bill as will all graduates with the required amount of student loan debt. "Altmire served on the conference committee that worked out the differences between the House and the Senate versions of this legislation," Mullen said.
Student loan debt is a significant financial burden for millions of Americans, particularly for those who have decided to pursue a career in public service. With much of their discretionary income going to pay their student loans, many young Americans have been unable to build the savings that they need to one day make longer-term investments, such as buying a car or a home. By capping loan repayment at just 15 percent of a graduate's discretionary income, this new program will make it easier for Americans to build a strong financial foundation for their future.
Occupational therapists who work for a local government, a state government, or a 501(c)(3) may qualify for additional loan forgiveness through the public servant loan forgiveness program, which was also created by the College Cost Reduction and Access Act. Under this program, military service members, first responders, nurses, educators, and many others who have completed ten years of public service can have their remaining student loans forgiven.
According to AOTA, the bill would extend loan repayment to occupational therapists and other Frontline Health Care Providers in exchange for working for two years in medically underserved areas. Such areas are designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services or by the State.
In addition to occupational therapy, the following professions qualify as frontline service providers: physical therapy, audiology, speech language pathology, general surgery, chiropractic, optometry, ophthalmology, pharmacy, public health, podiatric medicine, dietetics, general pediatrics, respiratory therapy, medical technology, and radiologic technology.
Use the letter template below provided by AOTA to take action and advocate with your Members of Congress for passage of this important bill:
Christine Tarlecki is a freelance writer.