Officials with Ozark Center and psychiatry residency students there told U.S. Rep. Billy Long on Tuesday that a change in the federal Doctors of Community Act would bring funding stability to students and medical schools and help train more doctors for rural areas.

Long, R-Mo. and candidate for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats, visited Joplin for a roundtable discussion with Freeman Health System and Ozark Center administrators as well as students in the health system’s psychiatric residency program. That program is part of the local Kansas City University Graduate Medical Education Consortium.

Paula Baker, president and CEO of Freeman, and Vicky Mieseler, chief administrative officer of Ozark Center, asked Long for his support of extended federal funding to pay for medical education through the Doctors of Community Act.

In addition, they thanked him and Congress for reauthorization of the Teaching Health Centers Graduate Medical Education Program. That funding program expands the number of residents who can be trained.

Funding for the latter program has been stagnant and was set to expire in fiscal year 2023. A pending bill in the House would provide $500 million annually from 2024 to 2033 and provide permanent authorization of funding beyond 2034.

Baker said Long “has been instrumental in so many different ways to help further behavioral health as well as family medical care.”

Mieseler said, “We want to thank you for all your support over the years since we started our residency program. and just this year you’ve helped us with two positive votes that allows our teaching health center to go three years instead of two,” which she said provides stability in funding for training future doctors.

In addition “we are also grateful for the additional $330 million appropriated in March in the American Rescue Plan Act,” Mieseler said. The act provides for additional teaching health centers to be established. Mieseler said there would be at least one in each state while today only half of U.S. states have a teaching health centers such as Freeman/Ozark Center.

Dr. Nauman Ashraf, program director for the KCU Graduate Medical Education Consortium, said that local teaching program started in 2012. There are 12 residency students, three to four of them in each year of residency from first through fourth years.

Ozark Center will apply for funding from the rescue plan’s expanded graduate program that would allow the number of students to expand from 12 to 16 residents, Mieseler said.

“That would really give us the manpower to serve the community that has seen a lot of rise in anxiety and emotional issues during the COVID pandemic,” Ashraf said. “Our residents have been at the forefront of delivering compassionate care and helping these patients maintain hope during this crisis.”

Six classes have graduated since the local program began and most of those doctors have stayed in Missouri, where there is much need for rural providers, Ashraf said.

Long said he has seen the need.

“It is a much-needed field in our country today, and especially with the advent of COVID-19, the mental health needs are off the charts,” Long said.

The U.S. was facing a shortage of health care workers before the pandemic. The government said that increased funding of the graduate program would create 100 programs in teaching health centers around the U.S., bringing about 1,600 new doctors into fields such as family and primary care as well as mental and behavioral health, which would be the biggest expansion since 1997.

Without the federal program, students would face medical school costs of up to $200,000.

Students who have received residency mental health training previously when only two years of funding was authorized at a time and even now, with three years of funding, have to pay for the rest of their training themselves unless they are able to obtain grants or scholarships.

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