The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation says it will donate $10 million over 5 years to encourage doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners to practice in poor areas and rural areas.

The foundation, an arm of North Carolina Blue, Chapel Hill, N.C., is giving the donation to a program set up by a foundation affiliated with the North Carolina Medical Society, Raleigh, N.C.

The program pays up to half of the medical education debt of health care providers who agree to serve at least 5 years in communities with a shortage of health care professionals.

The North Carolina Blue foundation grant and $5 million in matching funds to be raised by the medical society foundation could increase the number of providers participating in the program to 160 in 2010, from about 100 today, according to North Carolina Blue.