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Senator Whitehouse wants to forgive student loan debt for frontline health workers, teachers

Proposed legislation would increase the amount of debt relief offered to “highly qualified” teachers, and establish a program for health care workers who have made significant contributions during the pandemic

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, listens during a U.S. Senate Budget Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.Stefani Reynolds/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Wednesday introduced legislation that would forgive the student loan debts of frontline health care workers and teachers across the country.

The Teacher Loan Forgiveness Improvement Act would provide $30,000 in relief instead of $17,500 for “highly qualified” teachers as defined by the education department. Other teachers would receive $15,000 in relief instead of the current $5,000. Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced mirroring legislation in the House.

The Student Loan Forgiveness for Frontline Health Workers Act would establish a federal and private loan forgiveness program for health care workers who have made significant contributions during the pandemic.

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Meaghan McCabe, a spokeswoman in Whitehouse’s office, told the Globe that these significant contributions could be through COVID-19 patient care, medical research, vaccine testing, or expanding the capacity of the health care system to respond to the crisis.

Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, introduced the bill in the House — the second time she brought it to the floor. In the legislation, first introduced in April 2021, Maloney wrote that the US Department of Education must carry out a program to forgive the outstanding balance of principal and interest due on federal student loans for borrowers and the US Department of Treasury would have to repay, “in full,” the outstanding balance of principal and interest due on “certain” private student loans for borrowers.

Those frontline workers who died as a result of contracting COVID-19 would also be eligible for debt forgiveness under the bill.

Under Whitehouse’s bill, the amount of relief is also the outstanding balance of interest and principal due on federal student loans incurred for graduate and professional education, said McCabe.

“We owe so much to our health care workers and teachers – something we grew to appreciate even more during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Whitehouse, who is also a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “This legislation honors the contributions of these public servants by helping them to wipe the slate clean of student loan debt.”

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Industry and union leaders came out in support of Whitehouse’s legislation. Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals said a number of the organization’s members began their careers with “staggering” student loan debt while earning salaries significantly less than their private sector peers.

“This often results in a delay in the financial security necessary for important milestones such as marriage or homeownership,” said Flynn, and added that debt forgiveness would help attract and retain a quality workforce.

Patrick Quinn, the executive vice president of SEIU 1199NE, which represents more than 29,000 health care workers in the New England, said rebuilding the workforce has been difficult due to the devastation it faced from the pandemic.

It doesn’t help, he said, that the education requirements for both entry-level positions and incumbent healthcare workers is “expensive and undermines our best efforts.”

Lawrence E. Purtill, the Rhode Island president of the National Education Association, said this legislation was a “step toward alleviating the burden” on the educators and frontline workers employed currently.

“Higher education should only mean greater possibilities not deeper crippling debt,” he said.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.