Updated Student Loan books

Nice, productive holiday weekend. I also got around to making some minor revisions and 2019 updates to Medical Student Loans and Dealing with Student Loans, both of which you can always download for free right here. Yes, these beloved best-in-class books are completely free, because student loan debt is crippling generations of Americans, and that outweighs every other consideration.

If you already have a copy, you can still drop your email on the download page and get this most recent edition in your inbox. (And of course you’re always welcome unsubscribe immediately.)

While I would recommend reading one of the two books to literally anybody with a student loan from current college students to seasoned physicians, I strongly recommend any graduating students to take a few hours this month and get your financial house in order.

This is literally the perfect time.

Doctor jobs at “nonprofit” 501(c)(3) hospitals don’t all qualify for PSLF

Depending on where your searches take you or which books and articles you read, you may come across some questionable insight when it comes to PSLF eligibility for doctors. In short, people often argue that because approximately 70% of all hospitals in the United States are nonprofit hospitals, that a similar fraction of jobs at those hospitals qualifies for loan forgiveness. This is very logical, but it is unfortunately not true.

Now to be clear, this is often used as an argument for why residents should remain in a federal repayment plan like REPAYE instead of private refinancing, for which I wholeheartedly agree. In most cases, residents will get as good if not a better rate staying in REPAYE than they could get with a private company, all while enjoying the benefits, protections, and flexibility of the government plans while giving you the chance to achieve tax-free loan forgiveness via PSLF–depending on what job you take after finishing training. You really never know until you know. Most of you reading probably didn’t even apply for the same residency you’d have guessed when you applied to medical school, so why pretend you know exactly where you’ll be working years in the future?

That post-residency job bit is key though because the magic of tax-free loan forgiveness via PSLF requires a few things: qualifying loans paid for using a qualifying repayment plan while working at a qualifying institution.

The counterintuitive issue here is that it does not actually matter what you do for your job or even where you do it, it only matters who pays you. Outside of academia, county hospitals, and the government (including the VA and active duty military hospitals), relatively few “nonprofit hospitals” directly employ their docs. In some states like Texas and California, none at all.

It’s common knowledge that many specialties like radiology, pathology, and emergency medicine are nearly always a contracted private practice group that provides services. Specialists are a relatively uncommon direct hire at most non-profits. But even many hospitalists are actually employed by a separate physician group. So the question in many cases isn’t “is the hospital a non-profit?” It’s: is the physician group also a non-profit?

To give you an example: the very famous healthcare organization Kaiser Permanente runs a lot of 501(c)(3) hospitals. Many people who work at these places would definitely qualify for PSLF. However, the physicians who work for Kaiser are not employed by Kaiser Permanente itself or any of its network nonprofit hospitals. They are employed by various for-profit Permanente Medical Groups. It doesn’t matter if they work at a nonprofit; it matters who pays the bills. Whoever appears at the top of your W2 is who counts.

Sad but true. While the law was intended to encourage people to pursue careers in public service, the nature of how it was written dictates that it is only the details that matter, not the substance.

This is not to say that there are no qualifying nonprofit hospital jobs out there outside of the usual academic/safety net/government axis (of course there are) but rather that working at a nonprofit hospital doesn’t necessarily mean you are working for that hospital. It’s not the same kind of guarantee that working at an academic/university institution typically is, and even some academic hospitals are “privademics” that still silo off most of their doctors.

If you are relying on or planning for PSLF, then eligibility will be an important consideration when choosing your first job or two as an attending. In this case, you had better make sure you know exactly who your real employer would be, not just where you’d be working.

To repeat: if your hospitalist gig means you’re actually employed by a hospital-associated provider group, it’s the group that needs to be a 501(c)(3).

It doesn’t matter what hospital you work at if the hospital doesn’t employ you. It matters that your direct employer is a 501(c)(3) organization that treats you as a full-time employee.

Help with Residency Relocation Costs

For those moving for residency, there’s a new free service from a couple of fellow docs called Backlode.

The idea is based on the fact that moving companies can often be persuaded to give a discount for the return leg after a long-distance move (because they need to drive back to their home base anyway, and an empty truck doesn’t earn them squat).

The idea of the site is that you put your info in and see if you can link up with another graduating medical student or resident who is doing the opposite move and then coordinate your moves together.

Founder Arun told me this:

The idea stems from my own experience moving from Saint Louis to Ann Arbor for residency. I found a moving company in Ann Arbor that was moving an incoming fellow to Saint Louis within my time frame. Because they otherwise would’ve been driving home an empty truck, they discounted my move and saved me about $1,500.

My goal is to leverage the collective network we have as medical professionals and mitigate their relocation expenses by recreating this for others.

Neat. This isn’t even a money making thing, it’s just a cool way to potentially reduce the financial hit of moving when you’re already broke.

On a related note, most residents should probably be renting and not buying houses. But if you’re even considering it, LeverageRx is a totally free platform I recommend that will let you rapidly comparison shop multiple physician loan lenders (yes that’s a referral link, but check it out). It’s never a good idea to just call a company or two and go with whatever they offer on something as big and high-stakes as a mortgage.

A Partial Win for Non-501(c)(3) Nonprofits & PSLF

When the Department of Education started reversing FedLoan’s employment certification form (ECF) decisions about qualifying employment, people were rightfully troubled. The American Bar Association (and four individuals) sued.

The case is over, and three out of the four won. That’s nice, but the fourth would have made all the difference.

The memorandum opinion from Justice Timothy J. Kelly filed on February 22 is helpful in understanding why. In summary, Kelly calls out the Department of Education for being both terrible and unconvincing:

The Court concludes that Defendants acted arbitrarily and capriciously when the Department changed its interpretation of the PSLF regulation in two ways without displaying awareness of its changed position, providing a reasoned explanation for that decision, and taking into account the serious reliance interests affected.

 

The Suit

PSLF-qualifying employment is straightforward in cases of government or 501(c)(3) work. The lawsuit, which concerns shifting definitions of non-501(c)(3) nonprofit eligibility, hinges on this part of the PSLF law (emphasis mine):

[A] borrower’s eligibility for the PSLF Program is not determined by her job responsibilities, but rather by whether her employer qualifies as a “public service organization.” Under the regulation, “public service organization” includes any government organization, not-for-profit organization classified under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, or not-for-profit private organization that is not classified under Section 501(c)(3) so long as it “provides [qualifying] public services” and does not engage in certain disqualifying activities. […] The qualifying “public services” include, among many others, “public interest law services,” “public education,” and “public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly.”

The lawsuit alleged that the DoE changed the roles by adopting three new standards: the “Primary Purpose” standard, the “School-like Setting” standard, and the “Outright Provision of Services” standard.

These were essentially changed to limit the number of qualifying non501(c)(3) organizations by saying that an organization needs to not just supply public interest law services but to have that be its primary purpose; that an organization cannot just provide public education but most do so in a school-like setting; that it must provide “public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly” directly and not just facilitate the provision by others.

The court agreed that the “primary purpose” and “school-like setting” rules were changed after the fact illegally. The court didn’t agree about the “outright provision” standard.

The American Bar Association (ABA) was the lead plaintiff. It initially qualified as a PSLF-employer because it provides public interest law services. Later on, this decision was reversed because the Department of Education decided that providing public interest law services was not its primary purpose. As we’ll see, the Department of Education changed the rules and pretended it didn’t. Not Kosher.

In the claim that lost, The Vietnam Veterans of American (VVA) was the employer. Although it “provides advocacy and support services to Vietnam veterans,” it does so be helping Veterans apply for and receive support services–but does not provide them directly. For totally obvious reasons, helping veterans in this capacity is meritless and should earn no governmental support.

As the law says, it’s not the work that matters, it’s the employer. Unfortunately, the direct provision requirement was felt by the court to be a valid reading of the initial law, and there was no written evidence/proof that the Department’s interpretation of this component changed over time.

 

What does this all mean, and how did we get here?

In 2016, the Department of Education basically said that FedLoan’s employer certification form (ECF) approvals don’t really count and could be reversed at any time including when applying for PSLF itself after 10 years. The Court shot them down pretty robustly: The DoE can’t just change the interpretation of the law in order to maliciously reduce the number of people who qualify for forgiveness. This is extremely reassuring. If your job should qualify and you get the go ahead, a reversal is unlikely to hold up in court. More or less.

There’s a big exception, which has to do with the failed fourth plaintiff.

The court pulled back from holding the DoE accountable to uphold FedLoans’ “mistakes” by reaffirming that the details really matter. The DoE can reverse FedLoan’s ECF approvals if it can justify the mistake as a “contractor error,” even if fixing that “mistake” would be devastating to the borrower.

Unlike the other cases where internal Department and FedLoan communications made clear that the Department was changing the rules after the fact, there is no clear evidence that the “outright provision” standard had changed over time. Remember: it doesn’t really matter what you do, it matters who you did them for.

The bottom line: if you have a some approved ECFs for a non-501(c)(3) organization that does something similar (i.e. something good but not direct), your PSLF-eligibility is not safe.

 

The Victors

The DoE basically tried to get off on a technicality, arguing that its capricious denial letters were not “final agency actions” (which is required for judgment in cases like this). They argued that nothing is “final” until the formal PSLF application is reviewed:

The Department does not make a final determination on eligibility
for PSLF until the borrower files her application . . . after making 120 qualifying payments.

The Court didn’t bite and pointed out that, more or less, it would take a special kind of idiot to be denied but keep working in a job that would doom them financially and then apply anyway years later in the vain hope that the government would throw them a bone.

[T]he mere possibility that an agency might reconsider in light of ‘informal discussion’ and invited contentions of inaccuracy does not suffice to make an otherwise final agency action nonfinal.

[..]

[The] Court concludes that the Department changed the standards by which it assessed whether non-501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations qualified as public service organizations under the PSLF Program. Moreover, these changes were arbitrary and capricious because, in adopting the new standards, the Department failed to display awareness of its changed position, provide a reasoned analysis for that decision, and take into account the serious reliance interests affected.

[..]

Defendants argue that the denial letters did not have “an immediate or significant practical effect” on the Individual Plaintiffs because their “eligibility for PSLF had not yet been finally determined.” […] This is nonsense. In the face of growing debt burdens, the Individual Plaintiffs structured their careers and long-term financial plans around their eligibility for the PSLF Program. The Department’s determinations quite obviously had an “immediate” and “significant” impact on their ability to plan their careers and finances, despite the fact that they have not had (and may never have) the opportunity to submit an application for loan forgiveness.

Hear, hear!

 

Organizational Losers

The Court wasn’t interested in forcing the DoE to entertain requests to change its mind about qualifying organization-status:

As an employer, the ABA has no such rights or obligations, since it has no possible claim to loan forgiveness. And indeed, there is no procedure set out in [the PSLF law] or the Department’s guidance by which an employer can seek to validate whether it meets the definition of a “public service organization” in a manner similar to the process available for borrowers to track the number of eligible payments they have completed.

The flaw in appellants’ [finality] argument is that the ‘consequences’ to which they allude are practical, not legal.

So while the court can see how important it is for a non-profit to qualify for PSLF in order to attract and retain talent, this is not a legal consequence. Because, unless we’re talking about Citizens United and its toxic effect on campaign finance, organizations are not people, have no property rights, and thus no claim to PSLF.

There is no formal or legal appeals process for an organization to win back its status or appeal a rejection.

 

The non-501(c)(3) takeaway

Where you work can make all the difference. Again, government or 501(c)(3) work is a non-issue.

For those working at non-501(c)(3) organizations, when you worked matters, a lot. Because the rules changed.

If you started working in 2016 or later (or 2014 for public educational services), you probably were always under the new tighter definition. In this case, hopefully your job actually meets the requirements avoe. If it didn’t, you were probably denied already (“appropriately”). If you have an approved ECF, and your job doesn’t line up, this may have been a FedLoan contractor error and could be reversed. If you worked earlier and were rejected, like the plaintiffs in the case, than the DoE may have changed the rules on you and cheated.

Otherwise, look at your job and see if it passes the sniff test. Don’t ask yourself if you’re doing a public good–that’ how people got in trouble in the first place. It doesn’t matter what you do. Ask yourself if your job checks the right boxes.

Patriot Act inadvertently demonstrates the needless complexity of student loans

Hasan Minhaj, discussing student loans on his Netflix show Patriot Act.

You can’t call loan servicers financial terrorists. Terrorists take responsibility for their actions.

Full clip:

Minhaj spends a lot of time slamming Navient, which makes sense because Navient is terrible.

It’s a solid episode that also spends a nice amount of time lambasting Betsy DeVos (please see her 60 Minutes interview with Colbert commentary), the completely unqualified Trump appointee for Secretary of Education, whose main claim to fame in her current role is being wrong in everything she does and generally being an embarrassment. She was apparently picked because she is rich; she has no qualms practicing petty cronyism; and she believes in charter schools, defunding struggling public schools, and especially loves voucher programs that allow people to siphon money out of cash-strapped school districts to help them pay for private school.

But perhaps the best part is at the 17-minute mark, when Patriot Act inadvertently demonstrates the often-confusing and needless complexity of federal student loans by including a news clip that incorrectly describes the requirements for PSLF!

The expository clip states that both Direct and FFEL loans qualify for PSLF. FFEL loans don’t! The FFEL loan problem is one of the most common disqualifying reasons unsavvy borrowers get nailed for when applying for PSLF, and it has not and likely will never be addressed by Congress.

The clip also says you need to work at any non-profit organization. But that’s also wrong! In addition to government work, PSLF is specifically for 501(c)3 organizations or other orgs that provide certain qualifying services approved on a case by case basis.

Even a 27-minute segment on a well-produced show has a hard time getting it right.