Sanders calls for free public college to boost minority health care workforce

May 2, 2024

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suggested Thursday the cancellation of all student debt and making public colleges and universities free would help solve the country’s shortage of Black, Latino and Native American health care workers.  

“In my view, we need to cancel student debt and make all public colleges and universities tuition free, so that all people — regardless of background — can get the education they need, including medical school,” Sanders said in a Senate committee hearing on lack the of minority health care workers and the U.S.’s high maternal mortality rate.  

Strides have been made to boost the number of minority health care workers that practice in the field, but the rates of Black, Latino and Native American providers remain strikingly low. 

The overwhelming majority of doctors and nurses in the U.S. are white, followed by Asian Americans, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.  

Only 5.7 percent of U.S. doctors are Black, according to the National Medical Association, the country’s largest organization representing Black physicians, despite about 14 percent of Americans identifying as Black.  About 6 percent of doctors in the U.S. identify as Latino, and fewer than 1 percent identify as Native American.  

The percentage of practicing registered nurses in the country who are Black, Latino and or Native American are almost the same.  

In 2022, about 6 percent of registered nurses in the country were Black, 0.4 percent identified as Native American or Alaska Native and about 7 percent identified as Hispanic, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.  

One of the largest barriers to pursuing careers in health care for many Black, Latino and Native Americans is the financial burden of college and medical school tuition.  

Jaines Andrades, a nurse practitioner at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., told members of Congress at the hearing that when she graduated from high school, she wasn’t sure how she was going to afford higher education.  

After high school, she enrolled in a cosmetology program but had dreams of becoming a lawyer, she said.  

“As time passed, I struggled to figure out how to make that dream come true, coming from a single-parent home, where my mother didn’t have the means to save for college or law school,” she said at the hearing. 

Eventually, Andrades became more interested in nursing, completed prerequisite coursework and entered a nursing program at Elms College, just outside of Springfield.  

Andrades said she worked as a custodian at Baystate Medical Center while pursuing her degree. She said her colleagues there offered “incredible insight” into where she could apply for scholarships or interest-free loans to fund her education.   

“Without my colleagues, I would not have been able to find such resources, which I believe were instrumental to my education,” Andrades said. “These resources need to be made more visible and accessible to students.” 

Sanders all called for the expansion of similar resources like the National Health Service Corp at the hearing, as well as for the increase in the size of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which produce most of the country’s Black physicians.  

The unequal racial and ethnic makeup of the health care workforce, particularly among physicians, is hurting Americans of color because research shows that patients experience better health outcomes when treated by health care providers who share their racial and ethnic background.  

“Black physicians and health care providers are more likely to understand the unique challenges that influence Black patients’ health outcomes,” said Yoland Lawson, an OB-GYN and president of the National Medical Association, who spoke at the hearing.  

“Black patients are more likely to trust the advice of a Black physician or provider and comply with the physician’s recommendations.” 

Financial constraints and limited access to medical school, along with discrimination within academic and health care settings, are all barriers that hinder the “retention and advancement” of Black medical students, residents and practitioners, Lawson added.  

Samuel David Cook, a third-year internal medicine resident at The Morehouse School of Medicine, gave a poignant example during the hearing of how Black physicians better serve Black patients.  

Cook said that he was once told about how a Black woman in an Atlanta-area hospital was placed into a psychiatric hold after health care workers observed her “furiously hitting her head.” 

When a Black female psychiatrist at the hospital visited the woman’s bedside, she immediately told the rest of the medical team that “the patient was, in fact, not harming herself, but simply patting her head because that is how you scratch an itchy scalp without messing up your hair,” said Cook.  

“Had a Black physician not intervened in this instance, that patient was on a pathway to being chemically or physically restrained, and that hospital and staff would have justifiably faced a malpractice lawsuit.”