Sen. Bernie Sanders visits Morehouse; urges more spending for historically Black medical schools

Established in 1975, The Morehouse School of Medicine is considered one of the leading educators of primary care physicians, biomedical scientists, and public health professionals. (Courtesy of Morehouse School of Medicine)

To train more Black doctors, the federal government needs to bolster funding and make more training slots available for historically Black medical schools, leaders of those universities told U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Friday.

“Our HBCU medical schools are the backbone of training Black doctors in this country.” Dr. Hugh Mighty, Howard University’s senior vice president of health affairs, said at a hearing in Atlanta.

Students, meanwhile, told the independent senator from Vermont who chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that the heavy debt many aspiring physicians pile up is particularly discouraging to nonwhite students, whose families are less likely to be able to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition and fees.

“The greatest barrier to entry for burgeoning Black physicians is the immense and seemingly insurmountable financial risk waiting to shackle all those who pass through the gates of medical education,” Dr. Samuel Cook, a Morehouse School of Medicine resident, told Sanders.

Cook said he has $320,000 in debt and could earn more, on a per-hour basis, working as a restaurant cook than as a medical resident. Cook said the federal government should cancel medical student debts and pay medical school tuition for students going forward.

Sanders met with leaders of the Morehouse School of Medicine, Howard University College of Medicine, Meharry Medical College and Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science on the Morehouse campus in Atlanta.

“We are going to take your testimony and do our best — I’m not making any promises — but we will do our best to incorporate your ideas into legislation,” Sanders told the leaders and students.

The former Democratic presidential candidate made cancelling all student debt a central pillar of his 2020 campaign. He also backs the need to train more physicians willing to work in underserved communities.

Morehouse School of Medicine President Valerie Montgomery Rice told Sanders that Black medical schools have less money and fewer academic affiliations, making “support from federal programs that are specifically designed to level the playing field” very important.

Graduates of the schools need better access to more slots in residency and fellowship programs to complete their training, Rice and others said. They noted there aren’t enough residency slots available to train all the doctors that are needed and that recent expansions have skipped hospitals with links to the schools.

“So if indeed it is a priority to increase the number of physicians in communities of color and medically underserved communities, there should be specific provisions in each of these programs that direct a meaningful portion of these slots to teach in hospitals and health centers affiliated with our HBCUs,” Rice said.

A proposal in Congress to increase the number of Medicare-financed residency slots by 14,000 over seven years could help that problem. Leaders of the schools support the plan.

Leaders including Dr. David Carlisle, president of Drew in Los Angeles, said that federal programs to bolster research at the schools aren’t providing enough money to erase historical disadvantages.

Dr. James Hildreth, the president of Meharry in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier proposed that Congress invest $5 billion to improve research and development at the four schools, as well as in health graduate programs at other historically Black colleges and universities. Two other historically Black institutions, Xavier University of Louisiana and Maryland’s Morgan State University, are setting up their own medical schools.

Jeannette E. South-Paul, the provost of Meharry, said the federal government should also bolster summer study, mentorship and scholarship programs that encourage nonwhite students to apply to medical schools. She said such “pipeline” programs are crucial in recruiting minority physicians.