We all know medical school is expensive. But we found two valley doctors who graduated decades ago and the federal government says they still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.
Meanwhile they live in nice homes and private country clubs in Palm Desert. Our visits to their practices were not exactly what the doctor ordered.
“We’re just asking why you’re on this government list,” News Channel 3’s Natalie Brunell asked as she confronted Dr. Hilda Chalgujian, a Palm Desert psychologist.
“It’s none of your business,” Chalgujian said.
Except as taxpayers, it is your business.
The U.S. Department of Education list we found Chalgujian’s name on showcases doctors and dentists who went to medical school on your dime.
It’s all part of the government’s Health Education Assistance Loan program otherwise known as “HEAL,” which gave federally-guaranteed loans to grad students in health related fields beginning in the 1970s. Because of the high default rate, the program flatlined in the 1990s.
The government began releasing the list of defaulters in the hopes of shaming the doctors into paying up, but 846 around the country still haven’t. Together they owe more than $100 million.
“We’re just wondering why you haven’t paid back $124,000 worth of taxpayer-funded loans,” Brunell said.
“Unbelievable,” Chalgujian said.
“We’re giving you a chance to speak and just answer these questions,” Brunell said.
“Because, because they cut me off,” Chalgujian said.
When Dr. Chalgujian stopped to talk with us, she said she’s been trying to reach a settlement with the Feds over her outstanding balance.
“A lot of people have student loans, why has it taken you so long to pay?” Brunell asked.
“Because you pay interest and penalties, that’s all you pay over time, interest and penalties,” Chalgujian said.
We heard a similar answer from the other valley doctor on the list, Palm Desert chiropracter Dr. Luis Lopez, who owes nearly $180,000.
“All of that is interest and penalties over the years. I’ve probably paid back about $45,000 over the years,” Lopez said.
The amount he paid is still less than what the government says he originally borrowed three decades ago.
But instead of pushing away our cameras, he spoke candidly, saying his practice has never made enough for him to pay back the loan.
To make matters worse, he said he filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy a few years ago. meaning he doesn’t qualify to take out a private loan to settle this one with Uncle Sam.
“They offered me last time, if you can qualify for $50,000 we’ll accept $50,000 and I can’t. I’ve tried, I can’t get that loan right now,” Lopez said.
Still we have to wonder how in 2007 Lopez could afford to buy a three-bedroom house in Palm Desert worth more than $400,000.
And about how Dr. Chalgujian affords the Palm Valley Country Club, which on Facebook she boasts has a great gym and spa.
Meanwhile the government continues to sit in the waiting room, for these doctor debts to be paid.
“It has disrupted my life, as you can see, and if this goes on TV I’m going to be very unhappy, I will follow up,” said Chalgujian.