CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. (WHTM) — A Carlisle nurse could be facing nearly $90,000 in debt after losing her job during the pandemic and working to pay off her student loans.
Brandi Barrick has been a nurse practitioner for nine years, starting her career in nursing even earlier in 2004.
In September 2019, after a year at her new job, she signed up for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program.
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“I had read about the penalties and everything associated with that and I wanted to be sure that I was going to be able to continue the contract,” she said, adding that was why she waited a year before signing up.
The NHSC gave her $25,000 to help with student loans in exchange for working two years at an approved clinic.
“I thought it would give my family, help my family ultimately with paying off my loans,” Barrick said.
Less than a year later, in the spring of 2020, Barrick lost her job. The clinic where she worked cited fewer patients due to COVID-19. Barrick struggled to find a new job at another approved clinic in the Midstate
“I emailed my resumes to every single one I could find that was within an hour and a half that qualified, and out of the six or seven, I heard back from, I believe three of them, interviewed at two of them, and I got nowhere,” she said.
In April 2020. the NHSC told Barrick she was in breach of her contract. Their online estimator told her she could owe almost $90,000 in penalties.
“I had no idea what we were going to do,” Barrick said.
The NHSC said they would help her look for a job, but it might not be local. In emails to Barrick, the NHSC said Barrick “agreed to serve in a [Health Professional Shortage Area…without geographic limitation.” However, Barrick said moving is not an option.
“My husband, he had a history of kidney cancer and we ended up finding out that it had returned,” she said.
The NHSC sent Barrick two approved sites where she could apply — in Illinois and California.
“Both of which are very far away from our friends and family who we rely on for support with my husband’s health and my son,” she said.
Barrick decided to apply for a permanent waiver which would release her from her contract. A spokesperson for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which runs the NHSC, said the legal requirements for permanent waivers “only allow them in very rare circumstances.”
“She told me on the phone, you won’t be approved,” Barrick said, but added she applied anyway.
The NHSC policy says a waiver may be granted if finishing a contract or paying the penalties is “(1) impossible or (2) would involve extreme hardship.” The organization does consider terminal illness in the family, but in July 2020, Barrick’s request for a waiver was denied. Instead, she was granted a one-year suspension of her contract.
“That just prolongs it,” she said.
Barrick renewed her suspension in July 2021, and she plans to request another one in 2022, but she is still not sure what to do long-term.
“If I don’t get approved for the suspension, then we’ll probably end up having to lose our house and everything else because there’s no way we can afford $85,000 plus interest,” she said.
After everything she has gone through in the last two years, Barrick said she regrets signing up for the Loan Repayment Program at all.
“It was the worst thing I have ever done,” she said.
Barrick is not the only person impacted by this. An HRSA spokesperson said the organization is trying to accommodate as many contract suspensions as possible due to the pandemic, and granting renewals when needed.