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NDP Leader Jack Layton jokes with the crowd as he addresses medical students and doctors during a campaign stop in Halifax on Monday. ((Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press))

An NDP government would forgive the student loans of new family doctors who remain in general practice at least 10 years, NDP Leader Jack Layton pledged on Monday.

The debt amnesty is part of the party's proposed health-care plan, which calls for $1 billion over five years to increase the number of medical students across the country by 1,200 annually and the number of nursing students by 6,000 a year. 

The increased number of doctors would ultimately improve patient care and reduce wait times for Canadians, which, Layton said, was a key policy promise broken by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in the last federal election.

Layton said his party created the debt forgiveness plan after consulting with those within the medical system who had been forced to abandon their plans to be general practitioners in favour of becoming higher-paid specialists because their student loans were too great.

Those studying to be GPs often accumulate tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, with the burden sometimes reaching six figures, Layton said at a campaign stop at Halifax's Dalhousie University.

"These people wanted to be family physicians," he said. "They wanted to help people to be well from the get-go."

Instead, the family doctor shortage across Canada further stretches health-care systems by forcing families to go to the emergency room for every ailment and failing to address health concerns at the earliest stage.

Layton said his government would also work closely with the provinces and territories to fix Canada's foreign credentials system and ensure properly trained medical professionals can get to working where they're needed.

In Ottawa, Harper said Layton's campaign promises have not been costed.

"NDP promises always sound good but the economy has to be able to afford them," Harper said.

"[With] the NDP, it's far from clear where they would get all this money to spend billions and billions of dollars at a time of economic uncertainty."

Got a question for Jack Layton? Send it to national@cbc.ca for The National's Your Turn with Layton Sept. 17.