For international doctors, the process to obtain visas to practice in the United States is riddled with backlog. The problem is ever-present in rural parts of Minnesota — some of which are facing a shortage in primary-care physicians.
It’s why Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tom Emmer have introduced legislation to try to ease the backlog and help doctor shortages in rural areas.
Klobuchar’s legislation, the Conrad State 30 & Physician Access Act, was introduced Wednesday with Reps. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). It would expand the Conrad 30 program, which allows 30 doctors from each state to stay in the U.S. (instead of having to leave for two years before applying for another visa or green card) if they practice in a shortage area for three years.
Klobuchar’s legislation would make Conrad 30 permanent — it’s set to expire on Sept. 30, 2015 — and allow states to potentially increase the number of doctors in this program, depending on the program’s usage. Under the legislation, doctors are covered by improved worker protections, and their spouses are allowed to work.
“With communities across the country facing doctor shortages, it makes no sense that we currently force doctors that we educate and train right here in the U.S. to leave our country once their residency is over,” Klobuchar said in a release from her office.
Rep. Tom Emmer, along with New York Democrat Rep. Grace Meng, introduced the Grant Residency for Additional Doctors Act of 2015 last month to ease the visa backlog for foreign doctors to come work in the United States. It would require that the Secretary of State expedite the review process for J-1 visa applicants for graduate medical education or training, and some Foreign Service Officers would be trained to better work with the nuances and complexities of this particular visa application.
“It’s a general need across our entire state,” Emmer said of the doctor shortage, explaining that he wants to help communities that will be affected by the shortages.
Meng introduced the GRAD Act of 2014 in November in the last session of Congress, but it didn’t move forward before the end of the session.
The J-1 visa is an “exchange visitor” visa for work-and-study based programs, which includes physicians who are in graduate medical school or training. These medical training visa recipients must return home for two years before becoming eligible for certain US visas, including a permanent resident visa. A high percent of the foreign doctors are from India and China and have to undergo a very complex process to obtain their visas, which leads to delays, Emmer said.
But the training his legislation offers will lead to Foreign Service Officers being equipped with “the tools they need to properly process each application in a timely manner,” Emmer said in a release about the GRAD Act.
“This bipartisan bill doesn’t just address issues important to the State Department and the applicant; it will also benefit the patients of underserved hospitals by giving them access to medical care when they need it most,” he said.
Bernard “Brownie” Williams, a doctor in Sartell, is a board member of the Minnesota Rural Health Cooperative. He said the doctor shortage comes from difficulty in recruiting doctors to rural areas.
“Let’s take this as an example,” Williams said. “I’m in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and I have a little harder time recruiting than I would if I was in San Diego.”