On Capitol Hill, AFSCME Member Urges Congress to Renew Loan Repayment Program

Shawn Dougherty is a correctional substance abuse counselor at the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Connecticut. He is also a member of AFSCME Local 391 (Council 4). On Tuesday, he testified on Capitol Hill about the need for lawmakers to fund the Loan Repayment Program for Substance Abuse Treatment Workers.

“I urge you to fund this new program at the $25 million level,” he told the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services of the U.S. House of Representatives. “I would also urge you to make sure it is accessible to all front-line substance use disorder treatment workers. Funding this new loan repayment program is an important way for Congress to show respect for the work we do and the people we serve.”

AFSCME members across the country who work in behavioral health save lives. They do high-stakes work that requires expertise, dedication and know-how. As such, they have advanced degrees and high student loan debt. But the work they do often doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

The loan repayment program Dougherty testified about was created last year as part of the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act. It invites eligible behavioral health workers to apply for help in paying their student loans. But funding for the program now hangs in the balance.

“I have amassed roughly $92,000 in student loan debt to earn my master’s degree,” Dougherty told lawmakers. “I would benefit from this program.”

AFSCME member Shawn Dougherty talks to Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut
Pictured: AFSCME member Shawn Dougherty talks to Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Photo Credit: Stephen Sullivan

Dougherty didn’t go into his line of work to get rich. He did it to help his community. His own father struggled with addiction when Dougherty was a child.

“I remember being a scared 5-year-old, sitting in the car waiting for my dad, while he went to a dealer to get drugs,” Dougherty said. “I wondered if he was coming back. I am proud that he has been clean and sober for 30 years.”

At the prison in Connecticut, Dougherty works with 30 inmates in outpatient groups and another 90 men in an inpatient therapeutic community. He can relate to the people he helps and is proud to make a difference in their lives. There are many he has helped, and he remembers their stories.

“There’s one guy I knew about five years ago,” he told AFSCME Now during an interview. “He was in his mid-40s, had been in and out of prison five to seven times. He was in our inpatient program. After graduating from the program, he went on to work in the program before moving on. The last time I heard from him, he had a job and was getting married and there’d been no more substance abuse or parole issues. He put his fiancée on the phone, and she said to me: ‘I just want to tell you that you saved his life.’”

Dougherty added: “Without that, I couldn’t do this job.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who chairs the subcommittee Dougherty testified before, assured him and other witnesses at the hearing that Congress will “continue to invest in these important programs.”

“These programs directly impact the lives of Americans across the country, especially children, families, and seniors,” she said.

Workers like Dougherty who go above and beyond to make their communities better deserve respect. AFSCME joins him in urging Congress to fund the loan repayment program at $25 million for this coming fiscal year.