AUGUSTA — Medical students wearing white coats on Monday objected to proposed cuts to a scholarship program, saying it could hurt the state’s ability to get and keep doctors.

In testimony before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, students from Caratunk, Portland, Millinocket, Farmingdale and other communities across the state presented a united front against a proposed $125,000 cut to the Doctors for Maine’s Future scholarship.

“Cutting funding for this program may seem an expedient way to balance the budget, but the repercussions will be far-reaching, impeding Maine’s ability to recruit and retain the next generation of health care professionals,” said Nicole Barbee, a native of Cherryfield who is a second-year student at the Tufts University School of Medicine.

The proposed cut is part of Gov. Paul LePage’s supplemental budget, which is needed to balance the state spending plan through June 30. Legislators began the first of three days of public hearings Monday by reviewing several areas, including cultural agencies and the Department of Education.

The budget includes for $151 million for various initiatives, such as increased payments to hospitals for past-due bills. It is largely supported by a $111 million increase in state revenue projections.

The budget also would cut $26 million in state spending.

On Monday, the Appropriations Committee began reviewing how the budget would affect various state departments, both with cuts and increased funding. It reviewed proposed changes to the departments of Education, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Marine Resources, among other agencies.

The committee can amend the budget before it goes to the House and Senate for votes.

The medical school scholarship program falls under the Finance Authority of Maine. Beth Bordowitz, chief executive officer of FAME, said she suggested the cut when she was asked for spending reductions.

She said the cut wouldn’t take effect for four years, because the program is now working to enroll students for 2016. She hopes that it could be restored before it affects future scholarship recipients.

LePage later met with the students and talked about the need for primary care physicians and other health professionals in rural areas.

Fourteen students are now in the program. They are eligible for $25,000 a year for each of their four years of medical school. The money is matched by private funds.

The cut wouldn’t affect anyone who is now in the program, Bordowitz said.

The program is designed to make medical school more affordable for Maine students, and to encourage new primary care physicians to practice in rural parts of the state. But the students are not required to stay in Maine.

“Being from Maine is a disadvantage, both geographically and financially, when pursuing a career in medicine,” said Chad Szylvian of Brewer, a second-year student at the Tufts medical school. “Not surprisingly, Maine lags behind most of the nation in applicants to medical school.”

Because Maine students who return to practice here get paid less than doctors in other states, Szylvian said, the scholarship money is a big help to students.

“This isn’t a bailout,” he said. “The Doctors for Maine’s Future program ensures a level playing field. I believe it to be advantageous and far-sighted for Maine to decide to invest in tomorrow’s professionals who will help drive the modernization of Maine’s work force.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]