Thought Experiment: Borrow a Direct Loan as soon as possible in order to secure the possibility of PSLF

Back when the Republicans held the Presidency, Senate, and the House, there was constant bellyaching about when the government would shutter the PSLF program. As we’ve discussed previously, despite various proposals, any practical discussion that suggested an imminent demise was either unfounded, misguided, and/or primarily promoted by news organizations who need advertising eyeballs or by those who profit from private student loan refinancing.

If you’ve been reading before, you’ll know that any upcoming changes won’t affect old/current borrowers, who will be grandfathered. PSLF is in your master promissory note.

That said, a program cancellation would change things for those who would be considered new borrowers after its implementation. For example, a high school student planning on one day being a doctor could find their future plans derailed, as might a college student whose parents have generously funded their education.

With Democrats controlling the House and most Democrat contenders for presidency supporting drastically expanded loan forgiveness, it would seem the odds of a program cancellation in the short term are lower than many would have anticipated even just a year ago.

But let’s do a thought experiment:

If someone wants to guarantee the ability to be eligible for the PSLF program, they should take out a student loan of some kind as early as possible.

Why? Because changes only affect new borrowers, and anyone with a current loan is automatically an old/current borrower. Someone who has already borrowed money with the expectation that it can be forgiven and holding onto a master promissory note stating the same should be safe from any future changes.

So a freshman in college who doesn’t really need a loan but qualifies for financial aid could take out even a token loan just to open that eligibility door. If you want to go to graduate school, perhaps one should fill out the FAFSA no matter what, even if your parents were planning on taking care of college for you.

Caveat 1: I’m not really recommending anyone do anything. It’s just an illustration of the world we live in and the system we work with.

Caveat 2: There’s no guarantee it would work that way fully. In the event of a PSLF-closure, a borrower’s outstanding/current loans would certainly qualify, and past proposals would also nearly guarantee that the loans required to finish their current course of study would also qualify. But the loans required for a future graduate degree? That wouldn’t necessarily have to make it in. The goal of taking an early token loan would be to give yourself the best chance of locking in forgiveness while not costing anything meaningful from accruing interest.

Caveat 3: Sometimes being an old borrower isn’t so great. PAYE was an improved income-driven repayment plan compared with IBR and was specifically not made available to old borrowers when it was released. Taking out a loan earlier than you need might keep the PSLF doors open, but it could close others, especially since the PSLF doors don’t seem to be closing yet. Given how long it takes Congress to do anything, one can easily see a scenario where imminent program changes are telegraphed way in advance.

Caveat 4: With regards to the Caveat 3, I personally think it is unlikely given the optics of recent PSLF denials and how loan politics have changed for any good new programs to be withheld from old borrowers in the future.

ABR wins lawsuit first round

On November 18, a federal judge has granted the ABR’s motion to dismiss for the lawsuit filed this February. Judge Jorge Alonso was unconvinced by the argument that the ABR has illegally tied its MOC product to its initial certification product, agreeing with the ABR that the two things are really two parts of the same thing (despite the fact that for lifetime certificate holders…they’re not):

Ultimately ABR sells only one product: certification of radiologists as having ‘acquired the requisite standard of knowledge, skill and understanding essential’ to the practice of medicine in their particular specialty or subspecialty. This was once a one-stage process, and it is now a multi-stage process, but it does not follow that the certification process consists of separate products; now as ever, there is only one product.

You can read a quick summary from Radiology Business.

Ultimately, there is a wide gulf between the things that are unethical or morally repugnant and those that are unequivocally illegal such that a court will reliably provide a ruling that coordinates with common sense or layperson expectations.

With how dysfunctional our national legislative bodies have become, people have forgotten that the courts are supposed to be more of a last resort than a primary hope.

Across all critical issues, we can’t rely on appointed judges to make things right.

 

Residents Are Underpaid, But You Knew That

A handful of notable free tuition experiments aside, the combination of rising medical school costs, vocational pressures, life-quality issues, and reimbursement battles has clearly had a chilling effect on many lower-paying specialties and continues to funnel medical students into procedural fields and surgical subspecialties.

An individual student’s personal calculus aside, the broader question is still worth answering, particularly as doctor’s compensation is once again in the news:

Taking into account the whole picture including student loans, a delayed start in the workforce, and high hours—is medicine worth it?

Well, we’re not going to answer that question today.

But we are going to briefly discuss one of the financial downsides of becoming a practicing physician: residency. This is perhaps compounded even more now with the blurring “provider” divide, where midlevels like NPs are increasingly able to create a similar if not substantially broader practice to resident physicians while also being able to make adult financial progress (paying off loans, meaningfully saving for retirement) immediately after school (and can even change specialties with little friction!).

All of that is a massive, thorny issue. But for this short post, I’d just like to quickly share two interesting data points that vindicate all you residents out there frustrated with watching your loan balances balloon.

Funding is nice, but cheap labor is cheap labor

The first is from a (not new) paper by UC Berkeley’s Nicholas Roth titled “The Costs and Returns to Medical Education.” The paper looks at medical school and training as a combination of financial and opportunity costs and calculates the relative return for different fields (I discussed it at length here if you’re curious), but it has an interesting statistic toward the beginning.

After Congress passed the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which capped government payments to hospitals for residents, hospitals added over 4,000 more residents than the government would support. This suggests that market forces are at work as hospitals try to hire residents until the marginal value of an additional resident is zero. It also suggests that hospitals profit from additional residents long after the point when our government stops funding resident education.

That’s fascinating because it dovetails perfectly with the narrative all residents believe that hospitals benefit from their cheap labor despite the ludicrous claims that it “costs more” to educate a trainee. (Right, because if that were the case, why ever hire a midlevel fresh out of school?)

The Residency Fire Sale

And if there was any further doubt, look no further than the recent Hahnemann bankruptcy fire sale for corroboration. When the hospital went under, they tried to sell their 570 residents slots as a tidy parcel to the highest bidder as if their residents were a commodity like office furniture. The winning bid was $55 million, meaning that even in an absurd market situation with a desperate seller, each resident was worth about $100k, not too far from what Medicare provides for each residency slot (again under the pretense that it costs about as much money extra to the institution to train a resident as they actually earn in salary).

Details Matter, But It’s Not Pretty

Of course, not all residents are created equal from a finance perspective. There are both intra-speciality and inter-specialty differences. While attending compensation is generally tied to the generated revenue, all residents of a given training level at an institution are paid the same amount. For an easy example, a radiology resident at a program that has 24/7 attending coverage provides much less bankable value than a resident who takes independent night call.

Of course, I see zero chance of this changing meaningfully in the near (or any?) future, but given the renewed political discussion of physician compensation and the growing role of non-physician providers, it’s worth pointing out that the reality on the ground (low trainee salaries, huge opportunity cost for additional training time) is a system construct that stakeholders should address when considering the future of medical training.

Parting Question

In the “non-profit” world of academic medicine, why do institutions need to profit from training doctors?

A Deep Dive into the Bylaws of the American Board of Radiology

In this post, we’re diving deep into the bylaws of the American Board of Radiology and picking out some choice quotations for perusal and discussion. Consider this part two of a two-part series (with the first being this enjoyable breakdown of the ABR’s tax returns).

You can download a word document of the ABR’s Bylaws in their entirety here. They were apparently last approved by a unanimous vote on October 20, 2017 (suggesting that the April 18, 2016 date on the current bylaws webpage is wrong).

The Party Line

For a bird’s eye view of what the ABR thinks the ABR is trying to do, look no further than Article II: Objectives and Purposes:

The objectives and purposes of this Corporation shall be as follows:
(a) To serve patients and the public by continuously promoting the competence of its diplomates;
(b) To improve the quality and safety of our disciplines through our requirements for primary and subspecialty certification;
(c) To create and conduct fair and valid examinations in our disciplines to evaluate accurately the qualifications of voluntary candidates for ABR certification;
(d) To issue certificates to qualified and competent candidates in the specialties and subspecialties of the ABR;
(e) To promote lifelong and continuous learning, professional growth, quality and competence through its MOC programs;
(f) To provide and administer programs for the Maintenance of Certification (MOC) of our diplomates;
(g) To promote professionalism within our disciplines;
(h) To establish and promote open and transparent multi-directional avenues of communication with our diplomates, medical societies, governmental and non-governmental agencies, and the public;
(i) To do and perform all things necessary or incidental to the foregoing objectives and purposes.

a) I think “promote” is probably the wrong verb. It suggests that the ABR serves patients or the public via marketing as opposed to something substantive. (Oh, I see what they did there.)

b), c), and d) are laudable goals that are unverified and hotly debated. e) is implausible. f) is factually undeniable. g) certainly not. h) transparency is not in the ABR’s vocabulary. Recent “multi-directional” communication has gone something like this:

ABR: Just trust us.
Everyone: Why would we?
ABR: Guys, we hear you, we are you.
Everyone: We don’t really see an empirical basis for that supposition.
ABR: Oh well. Worth a try. PS Your dues are due.

The Details

Section 4.3. Election of Governors. Nominees shall be solicited from the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors, and may be solicited from any appropriate professional organization. Professional organizations shall provide such nominations in writing. An affirmative vote of at least three-fourths (3/4ths) of the entire Board of Governors shall be necessary for the election of any nominee to the Board of Governors.

If you didn’t know, there are currently 8 Governors, and they basically run the show. Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” approach this is not. The current people in power shall nominate their replacements and other organizations may, but the key for any hopeful member is making sure that you fit in with the cool kids, essentially guaranteeing that no one with substantially differing views would ever make it to the upper echelon.

 

Section 4.6. Conflicts of Interest. It is the policy of this Corporation that the legal duty of loyalty owed to this Corporation by a Governor serving on the Board of Governors of this Corporation requires the Governor to act in the best interests of this Corporation, even if discharging that duty requires the Governor to support actions that might be contrary to the views, interests, policies, or actions of another organization of which the Governor is a member, or to the discipline of which the Governor is a member. Consistent with a Governor’s duty of loyalty, a person serving as a Governor of this Corporation does not serve or act as the “representative” of any other organization, and his or her “constituency” as a Governor of this Corporation is solely this Corporation and is not any other organization or its members.

This is an impressive statement. Read it twice and digest.

The people who run the ABR and make strategic decisions are bound to serve only the ABR and to act only to benefit the ABR. No other constituency matters including the discipline of radiology itself. Essentially, any benefits to other groups or the diplomates should be coincidental. Formalized organizational input such as from the ACR? No. Opinions of program directors, residents, fellows? No. Best interests of the patients? No.

To me, this is the exact opposite of how a certification board should function. It should be a team of stakeholders representing all relevant interests and acting to better the field. That’s the only way to ensure that it can actually achieve its mission (at least as stated in Article II).

 

Section 4.9. Officers. The officers of this Corporation shall consist of a President, a President Elect, and a Secretary-Treasurer, each of whom shall be a member of the Board of Governors, and such officers as the Board of Governors from time to time may elect…

The head leadership can only be selected from within the ranks of the cabal.

 

Section 5.1. Board of Trustees. The Board of Governors shall create a Board of Trustees, a strategically selected body that advances the quality, relevance and effectiveness of the American Board of Radiology’s examinations and programs for Certification and Maintenance of Certification across all disciplines of Radiology. The Board of Trustees is responsible for making operational decisions, subject to review by the Board of Governors, including but not limited to, examination goals, format, content, assembly, delivery, scoring and feedback.

There are currently 18 Trustees. I’ll admit I’m naive here, but I’m not exactly sure why there are both a head-board and a separate under-board. This seems like people just passing on the hard operational work to a group of subordinates via mandate while they get to chill and make “strategic” decisions.

 

Section 5.3. Terms, Term Limits. All members of the Board of Trustees shall serve for the limited period provided. Individuals may be nominated by any member of the Board of Trustees, which may solicit appropriate professional organizations to provide candidates. An affirmative vote of at least three-fourths (3/4ths) of the entire Board of Trustees shall be necessary for selecting a nominee. All such nominations must be approved by the Board of Governors.

Continuing a trend, the current trustees nominate and elect their own replacements, but the Governors have veto power should any organization put forth an unacceptable candidate. Neither the Board of Governors or the Board of Trustees are deliberative bodies.

And how could that change, unless the ABR determined that becoming democratic served the best interests of the ABR itself? Anything else would demonstrate insufficient loyalty.

 

Section 6.1. Annual Meeting. There shall be an annual meeting of the Corporation held during each calendar year at a time and place to be determined by the President. The Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees will meet both separately and together at the annual meeting; the timing of combined meetings will be determined by the Board of Governors. Members of the Board of Governors may regularly attend the Board of Trustees meetings as determined by the President.

Apparently that place is Hawaii.

 

Section 6.2. Regular Meetings. Each Board may hold regular meetings at such place and time as shall be designated by the President. The Board shall transact such business as may properly be brought before its meetings.

Apparently that place is also Hawaii?

 

Section 6.4. Conduct of Meetings. Unless otherwise determined, all meetings of the Board of Governors or the Board of Trustees shall be conducted in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised. Every meeting of the Board of Governors shall be presided over by the President, or in the absence of the President, by the President Elect, or, in the absence of the President and the President Elect, by a Governor chosen by a majority of the Governors present.

Close your eyes and picture the lameness. Is there a second?

 

Section 7.2. Committees of the Board of Governors.
a) Budget and Finance Committee. The Secretary-Treasurer shall be assisted in his/her duties by a Budget and Finance Committee, which, in addition to the Secretary-Treasurer, shall consist of at least three Governors. The Secretary-Treasurer will serve as the chair of the committee. The duties of the committee shall include reviewing the annual budget, overseeing investments, recommending examination fees, reviewing personnel salaries and benefits and related matters as assigned by the Board of Governors.

What I would give to be a fly on the wall during this committee’s meetings.

 

b) Bylaws Committee. The Bylaws Committee shall be responsible for reviewing the Bylaws and recommending appropriate modifications in them to the Board of Governors. The Committee shall consist of three Governors, as well as a Chair appointed by the President. The Chair of the Board of Trustees shall serve on the Bylaws Committee.

I initially assumed that shady COI stuff was standard jargon, but apparently this document has its own committee.

 

h) Executive Compensation Committee. The Executive Compensation Committee will carry out the Board’s responsibilities for designing, managing and annually reviewing Executive compensation and the Executive compensation policy. This committee will consist of the President, President Elect, and at least one additional member from the Board of Governors appointed by the President. The President will chair the committee.

I love that the committee that handles executive compensation is chaired by the president and then attended by the president-elect and “at least one additional” presidential appointee. Good thing that a conflict of interest for the ABR is just when a Governor cares about something outside of the ABR.

 

Section 9.1. Revocation of a certificate or placing a diplomate on probation.

There are a bunch of reasons the ABR can revoke your certificate. They all seemed reasonable, and I’m not reprinting them here. I read them pretty carefully and was relieved that writing critical sarcastic posts on your personal website was not listed.

 

ARTICLE XIII Indemnification of Trustees, Officers and Others. The Board of Governors may exercise the full extent of the powers which this Corporation has under the laws of the District of Columbia, as such law exists from time to time, to indemnify members, Trustees, Governors, officers, examiners, employees, including the Executive Director, Associate Executive Directors, volunteers, and agents for expenses incurred by reason of the fact they are or were Trustees, Governors, officers, examiners, employees, including the Executive Director, Associate Executive Directors, volunteers, or agents of this Corporation. Such expenses shall include attorneys’ fees, judgments, fines, amounts paid in settlement, and amounts otherwise reasonably incurred. The Board of Governors may make advances against such expenses upon terms decided by it. The Board of Governors may exercise the full extent of the powers which the Corporation has under the laws of the District of Columbia, as such law exists from time to time, to purchase and maintain insurance against the risks above described, on behalf of its Trustees, Governors, officers, examiners, employees, including the Executive Director, Associate Executive Directors, volunteers, and agents.

Imdemnify is legalese for covering personal liability expenses, so this is saying that the ABR may cover fines, legal fees, settlements, etc that its brass could otherwise be accountable for due to their actions relating to their work for the ABR. The ABR’s got its own back.

While none of its members have been personally named in any suit that I know of, it remains in perfect irony that the inflated certification fees the ABR collects are absolutely funding the defense against a class-action lawsuit about those very same fees.

Summary

So those are the highlights.

That COI policy would make more sense for a Fortune 500 company, and the executive compensation “committee” sounds farcical.

Does this document really matter? Does it really guide the actions of the ABR leadership? I don’t know. But as with MOC, the issues are predominately ones of principle.

The ABR’s outreach to its constituents is composed mostly of attending radiology meetings where they don’t meaningfully address common concerns and releasing a newsletter that is 90% transparent propaganda. In their collective mind, the ABR knows what we want and is giving us more (from the recent BEAM newsletter):

Starting in November, publication frequency of The BEAM and several formatting and content enhancements will occur. We are embarking on a six-times-per-year schedule instead of three times per year to help us remain more current with important news…We’ll be including short write-ups about people who work for the ABR, so diplomates and candidates can get a better idea of who’s here to serve them. The first is on the Certification Services tam [sic].

Spell check is a rough mistress.

These core problems are almost certainly amplified by the ABR’s policy of self-selecting its leadership from…dedicated…volunteers. I estimate a 0% chance that anyone with radical ideas or a desire to change the status quo would be selected. And, unlike many professional societies, the ABR top brass aren’t exactly unpaid volunteers.

Conclusion

I suspect that the ABR is composed of smart, caring, and dedicated individuals who probably want to do the right thing. But as an organization, the blinders are on and groupthink reigns.

I suspect that–from within–the ABR feels misunderstood, that they are doing their best to carry out their mission in an imperfect world where there are no perfect tests and drawing sharp lines feels like a messy process.

But the ABR is not misunderstood.

Instead, it functions within a meticulously-crafted bubble with its own reality-distortion field, preventing its leadership from seeing where things went wrong and where they’re going.

What bugs me?

It’s the pettiness.

It’s a few doctors doing things on behalf of constituents without their input and against their wishes, flaunting their mandate, slinging meaningless slogans, and appearing to profit in transparent and frankly embarrassing ways.

As a profession, we can do better.

Guesting about PSLF on the Financial Residency Podcast

Listen to me and Ryan Inman of the excellent Financial Residency podcast nerd out about PSLF and why you should 1) be diligent and 2) ignore the clickbait/majority of what you read online.

Check it out.

I would normally give the disclaimer that I had a cold, but I have a four-year-old and now an infant in daycare, so I’m always either sick, recently sick, or about to be sick. Clearly my verbal tick of the day was “at the end of the day,” so mentally subtract that from your listening and it’s a great episode!