Medical students worry health care reform will hurt chances to pay back student loans
Medical students worry health care reform will hurt chances to pay back student loans


Sunday, September 6th 2009, 4:00 AM

As politicians in Washington haggle over health care, New York's strapped medical students are increasingly worried about their earning power - and crushing school debts - as the health care pie gets sliced anew.

"I stand to gain nothing by them reforming the system," said Peter Steinberg, 31, a urology fellow at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

He's got reason to worry.

Like many residents on the verge of finishing their formal medical education, Steinberg is looking at having to repay a whopping $215,000 in student loans after eight years of college and med school, a six-year residency and a one-year fellowship.

Whatever path is selected to expand health care, doctors will likely be paid less for a job long considered a golden ticket to the good life.

Max Kates, a third-year med student at Mount Sinai Medical School in Manhattan, hears it all the time from older doctors who say their bank accounts are already suffering.

"They all say it is not like it used to be," said Kates. "They say if you are thinking of doing this for financial reasons, do something else."

Of course, being a doctor will always provide a better-than-decent living. And med students say the profession's greatest rewards have nothing to do with money.

"At the end of the day, it all comes down to interacting with patients," said Kates. "There's no amount of money in the world that would make me want to be a banker over that."

It is also inescapable that the super-sized debt faced by medical students in America helps drive other problems in the system.

That explains why, for instance, America is suffering a shortage in primary care doctors - because they are reimbursed at levels far below most specialists.

"It is not enough money, given the amount of debt they are going to finish with," said Yonatan Greenstein, 25, going into his fourth year at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

Many students said that subsidizing med school costs - as many nations already do - or boosting pay for primary care doctors could help to right some imbalances in the system.

Mostly they want to see a solution. As young students and residents, many spend hours every day helping to treat uninsured people in city hospitals.

"I have no regrets," said Elisabeth Lessenich, a third-year student at SUNY-Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn. "But I would be even more excited if I knew that everyone I am going to see has some kind of insurance."

For now, the debate remains a distant political squabble, one that seems to have little bearing on the delicate, front-line task of treating sick people.

"I am glad it is getting talked about," said Steinberg. "I just don't trust that they won't screw it up."

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