Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
FILE - Bottles of opioids at the pharmacy at Intermountain Healthcare's Salt Lake Clinic in Salt Lake City are pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — As opioid addiction continues to hit epidemic proportions throughout Utah and the United States, treatment sites are looking to get as many hands on deck as possible to help.

The latest National Health Services Corps program is offering up to $75,000 in student loan repayment for clinicians who make a full-time, three-year commitment to serve in rural and underserved parts of America. It offers $37,500 for half-time workers.

"It's huge blessing for my family," said Stacy Garnica, a nurse practitioner who worked another job while putting herself through intense postgraduate studies at the University of Utah. The education, she said, required sacrifices from her family and was "definitely an investment."

But she stands by her decision to help people.

"I've always really liked to help people," Garnica said. "It's a good feeling to feel like you're helping people who wouldn't be able to be served without you."

She's been working more than six years at the Mountainlands Community Health Center in Provo where she sees patients for a variety of reasons, some of whom need medical help getting off opioids, particularly prescription drug and heroin addiction.

"We're starting to see quite a few more people needing it, and we are getting more referrals from the community," Garnica said. "It is definitely needed in this area."

Medically assisted treatment for substance use disorders is needed throughout the United States, according to Israil Ali, National Health Services Corps director with the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. He said the loan repayment program is part of a series of efforts "dedicated to mobilizing the national health work force" and to specifically respond quickly to the opioid crisis.

The agency reports 116 people die each day from opioid-related drug overdoses in the United States. Utah has ranked in the top 10 states where drug-related deaths are highest, though, unlike many other states, there has been a slight decrease in the number of opioid-related deaths in Utah in recent years, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Still, 360 people died of an opioid-related overdose death in Utah during 2017, the latest data available. Prescription opioids were involved in 237 of these deaths, and heroin was involved in 159, the health department reports.

The National Health Service Corps Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Program has identified areas throughout the country that need additional help fighting drug addiction, particularly areas where there aren't enough clinicians — including doctors, nurses, certified nurse midwives, physician assistants, behavioral health professionals, substance use disorder counselors and pharmacists — to treat the growing numbers of patients needing the help.

"These are already credentialed clinicians and we're asking them to take up employment at approved sites throughout the country," Ali told the Deseret News. He said the division will award 1,000 clinicians with help to repay their student loans.

There are 64 approved sites in Utah that are eligible for the Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Program, including five in Provo and nine in Salt Lake City. At least a dozen more are in surrounding areas of Utah, Uintah and Salt Lake counties, where the majority of the state's population lives, works and frequents.

"We want to really make sure we are supporting the communities that need this," Ali said. "Delivering care where it is needed and especially in these most vulnerable areas."

Like all approved work sites, the Mountainlands Community Health Center is able to provide a low-cost option for health care, specifically for people without health insurance or who can't afford specialty care.

"I think they couldn't go anywhere else," Garnica said. The clinic has only recently started offering medically assisted treatment for drug addiction and she said it is "for sure helping people."

"Anyone thinking about serving an underserved population should do it," she said. "It is really great and really rewarding."

The loan repayment program is just one facet of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Five-Point Opioid Strategy to increase patient access to quality substance use disorder preventive, treatment and recovery services. It is aiming to bring together a variety of providers from different professions, who are working together more and more to combat the drug addiction crisis across the country with a variety of evidence-based clinical interventions.

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Of course, the agency hopes clinicians who take part in the program eventually put down roots and end up staying in the rural communities that they serve, bolstering what care is available there.

The application deadline for the loan repayment program is Feb. 28 at 7 p.m., and more information can be found online, at nhsc.hrsa.org/loan-repayment.

"This is a dedicated response to make sure we are on the front lines combatting this epidemic," Ali said. "We are making sure these providers are well-suited to take on this challenge."