Workers at Why Not Prosper in Germantown are eligible for the program

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Hundreds of addiction outreach workers in Philly have a chance to get a break on student loans. Through a state program, they can apply for up to $100,000 in forgiveness if they commit to working against the opioid epidemic for another two and a half years.

The Pennsylvania Health Department is giving out $5 million from a federal grant. Its purpose: to incentivize people to keep working in addiction treatment — and hopefully make a dent in overdose deaths.

No surprise, but working in addiction treatment can be a challenge, recovery house owner Rev. Michelle Simmons said. For one thing, many people in the field are in recovery themselves. But if they want to advance beyond base-level peer counseling gigs, extra education is key.

“You can’t just have your recovery and get a job,” said Simmons, founder of Germantown’s Why Not Prosper, where staff is eligible for the program.

“In order to move up the ranks they want you to be educated. You’re not going to be able to be an administrator or a director without a degree.”

Roughly 95 people will be chosen for the state grant across the 30 counties most impacted by the addiction epidemic, including Philadelphia.

Before you apply for student loan repayment, you’ve got to make sure you’re eligible. Applicants should have:

  • Two years of experience treating addiction
  • Existing employment in one of the licensed treatment practice sites
  • The commitment to stay there until September 2022, at least

Physicians and psychiatrists can get up to $100k, while other treatment pros can get up to $60k.

“We continue to need more professionals who can assist in addressing this crisis,” said Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary. “This funding helps us ensure that those affected by the crisis living in both underserved areas and areas hit particularly hard have access to primary medical and behavioral health care services to treat their disorder.”

$5 million now follows $3 million last year

Pennsylvania piloted the first round of the program in May, dividing $3 million among 24 people to provide student loan forgiveness in return for a commitment to helping people recover from addiction.

In the first round, half of the recipients worked in Philadelphia. Out of 1,114 total eligible treatment facilities around the state., 186 are in the city — which had the second-highest fatal overdose rate in Pa., per the most recent data.

Germantown’s Rev. Simmons is thrilled to see the program continue, especially since many of the employees at her network of safe spaces can apply.

“I have some women in the program now who are in college, getting some grants and some loans,” Simmons said. “They’re going to need it. Them student loans are so high it’s unbelievable.”

The average Pennsylvania family owes $36,000 in student loan debt — among the highest in the country.

Simmons herself is almost $200,000 in the hole — a substantial debt she racked up earning her own undergrad and master’s degrees, plus her daughter’s college tuition. Luckily, she earned some student loan forgiveness through another program for folks who start nonprofits.

Spokesperson Nate Wardle said the Pa. Health Dept. doesn’t want the mounting costs to be a deterrent to folks getting the help they need.

“We know that treatment for substance use disorder is in demand,” Wardle said. “We anticipate each of the individual providers awarded funding to treat many patients over the two years that are required to practice.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...