ALTOONA — An effort to bring more doctors to rural Iowa picked up a pair of donations from a pair of prominent organizations Thursday.

UnityPoint Health, which oversees one of the largest hospital and clinic systems in the state, and the Iowa Farm Bureau donated $50,000 and $25,000, respectively, to the Iowa Rural Physician Loan Repayment Program.

The donation announcement was made Thursday at the Prairie Meadows Events Center where Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds joined UnityPoint CEO Bill Lever, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill and Dr. Doug Martin, president of the Iowa Academy of Family Physicians.

“The need is great,” Martin said. “In Iowa, just like across the country, primary care physicians’ practices have a tendency to be focused more on urban and suburban areas and, unfortunately, that oftentimes leaves the rural and border communities with a shortage area.”

The program offers loan forgiveness of up to $50,000 a year for four years for students who promise to:

  • Train in an approved specialty, such as primary care.
  • Complete their residencies in an Iowa residency program.
  • Serve full-time in a community that has fewer than 26,000 residents and is located more than 20 miles from a city with a population of 50,000 or more for five years.

The donations will be added to a nearly $2 million state appropriation for the fund, which, organizers hope, eventually will have enough to forgive student debt for 20 doctors each year, 10 from the University of Iowa and 10 from Des Moines University.

“It removes one of the significant barriers (for rural doctors), that is these costly debts,” Branstad told a crowd of roughly two dozen who attended the news conference.

Martin said 73 of Iowa’s 99 counties are classified as having a physician shortage based on the number of physicians per population. Complicating matters, he said, is doctors in rural areas often don’t have the support systems, such as equipment available at clinics or hospitals, that urban and suburban doctors do.

He quoted U.S. Department of Labor figures that say a single physician’s practice supports six jobs in a community and has an economic impact on a community of more than $930,000 annually.

“This is a no brainer in terms of supporting a way to support students who eventually become primary care physicians who will become that point of access in rural Iowa,” Lever said.