The US Needs Foreign Doctors and Nurses to Fight Coronavirus.
The US was facing shortages of doctors and nurses even before coronavirus hit. Right now, the biggest worry is whether the medical system has enough medical personnel’s to treat patients with Covid-19. There is a very real risk of provider shortages in areas hit hard by the coronavirus, one solution is to make it easier to bring in doctors and nurses from abroad.
The US health system already relies heavily on immigrants, who make up 17 percent of all health care workers and more than one in four doctors. At a time when coronavirus is pushing states like Washington and New York to the limits of their resources, foreign health care workers will be all the more critical.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already waived licensing requirements to allow graduates of foreign medical schools to contribute to the coronavirus response anticipating such a shortage, but no other state has so far followed suit.
The implications of a shortage would be devastating, both to overworked personnel and to the patients for whom receiving medical attention could be a life-or-death matter. But it’s a problem that more immigration could easily fix — if the Trump administration were willing.
Hurdles for medical workers in the immigration system
Every year, roughly 4,000 foreign doctors come to the US on J-1 visas for residencies at teaching hospitals, which rely on Medicare funding to pay their salaries. While most of those doctors would like to stay in the country after they complete their training, only about 1,500 of them are ultimately able to do so, Siskind said.
That’s because they are required to return to their home countries for at least two years upon completing their training in order to be eligible for an H-1B skilled worker visa or a green card, unless they can obtain one of a few sought-after waivers.
How the US could bring in more doctors and nurses
Immigration attorneys are currently working on devising ways that the federal government could make it easier for foreign doctors and nurses to contribute to the coronavirus response and make up for hospital staffing shortages without relying on Congress to pass legislation.
There’s been a push for years to get the roughly 16,000 to 18,000 J-1 visa holders who are in various stages of the medical training in the US at any one time to be able to take on extra hours at hospitals that are outside their teaching program. The State Department, which helps administer that visa program, hasn’t allowed for that yet, but the agency could reconsider its policies.
HHS could also declare the entire country as a current shortage area of medical personnel, which would allow foreign doctors to practice wherever there are hot spots of infection.
Doctors also face administrative hurdles that the administration could eliminate: for example, it could allow doctors to fast-track their visa applications for the duration of the crisis and temporarily eliminate the requirement that they go to consulates abroad, which are shut down amid the pandemic, to pick up their visas.
To deal with the nursing shortage, meanwhile, US Citizenship and Immigration Services — the agency that administers work visas — could change its policies to give nurses more pathways to come to the US. It could allow nurses with bachelor’s degrees to apply for H-1B skilled worker visas, which aren’t currently available to them.
Immigrant advocates at America’s Voice have also proposed that the agency grant them parole status, based on humanitarian or public interest reasons, that could allow them to live and work in the US temporarily.
These are immediate measures that the federal could take to make foreign medical workers more accessible — but under President Donald Trump, who has pursued policies designed to keep immigrants out during his time in office, it’s not clear whether the current crisis will be enough to spur him to action.
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