Loan Repayment Program Now Open in California

After several years of effort by NASW and its California Chapter, state-licensed clinical social workers can now apply for a federal student loan repayment program.

Due to conflicting interpretations of licensing requirements, California social workers were unable to apply for the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program, which aims to recruit and retain medical, nursing, dental and behavioral/mental health clinicians in communities designated as shortage areas. NHSC is a network of 7,500 primary health care professionals and 10,000 sites in underserved communities across the country.

Rebecca Gonzales, director of government relations and political affairs at NASW’s California Chapter, said the chapter started receiving member complaints around six years ago about being disqualified for loan repayment program, or LRP, consideration.

From that time, the chapter and NASW’s national office began efforts to correct the discrepancy.

In a letter to federal lawmakers, NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark explained that due to an administrative interpretation of some NHSC LRP provisions by the Bureau of Health Professions in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, social workers who hold a California clinical social work license and no other state license are being denied participation in the federal loan repayment program.

“The reason for the denial is the interpretation by the LRP administrators of the eligibility standards to require all master’s-level social work applicants to have passed the clinical social work exam provided through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), a non-governmental voluntary association of social work licensing boards,” the letter said.

“California master’s-level social work graduates are required by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences ... to pass its own clinical social work exam,” it continued. “The California Board considers its exam to be the equivalent to the ASWB-issued exam and does not accept the ASWB exam.”

Because of this discrepancy, California social workers had been denied LRP participation.

Gonzales said the chapter sought to resolve the matter through state legislation. The Social Worker Loan Repayment Act, which will allow social workers to take the national exam for the LRP, passed in 2010 but does not go into effect until 2014.

However, better news arrived late last year when NHSC leadership agreed to change the LCSW requirements.

The new wording requires candidates to have passed the ASWB Clinical or Advanced Generalist licensing exam prior to July 1, 1998, or the ASWB Clinical Exam on or after July 1, 1998, or the licensing exam required by a state.

“Prior to this policy change, California licensed clinical social workers were the only social workers in the country that were shut out of this program,” Gonzales said. “... We were very pleased with this change.”