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Lawmakers to Immigration Agency: Let Docs on Visas Fight Virus

April 15, 2020, 6:47 PM

Republicans and Democrats are increasing pressure on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to let physicians working in the U.S. on visas treat Covid-19 patients at hospitals in need.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), and Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), along with 43 colleagues in both the House and Senate, sent a letter to USCIS on Wednesday urging the agency to waive restrictions that prevent doctors on certain employment-based visas from providing medical care at locations or in specialties other than those specifically approved for their immigration status.

The lawmakers’ plea is the latest voice to join medical associations and state governments calling for the administration to relax medical licensing and other restrictions as the Covid-19 pandemic grows.

“Such a decision would give our nation’s health care providers the flexibility that is needed to mount an adequate response during this emergency. Doctors need to be able to act now to use their knowledge and training to save lives without fear of the loss of their immigration status,” the lawmakers wrote.

For example, hospitals sponsoring doctors on H-1B specialty occupation visas must list every facility where the doctor will work when they petition for a guestworker, making it impossible for those physicians to quickly assist nearby hospitals inundated with sick patients or where doctors on staff are quarantined and can’t come to work.

Similarly, physician residents and fellows on study exchange J-1 visas are assigned to a specific employer, location, and specialty, and changes aren’t likely during an approved program year.

USCIS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Need in Rural, Underserved Areas

The lawmakers specifically cited a need for flexibility in the Conrad 30 program, which allows a doctor who completes a residency in the U.S. the option to avoid having to return to their country of origin for two years, as is customary, if they practice as a guestworker for at least three years in an underserved area.

Working in rural America, where doctor shortages are especially acute, can fast-track a foreign-born doctor’s ability to get a green card. But massive backlogs in the system, along with per-country caps that limit how many individuals from a certain country can qualify for permanent residency, result in many foreign-born doctors working in rural areas well beyond the required time limit.

“Hospitals and health care providers across the nation, and particularly those in rural regions, rely on this visa program to fill critical vacancies at their facilities,” the lawmakers wrote. “Health care workers on H-1B and J-1 visas—including physicians in the Conrad State 30 program, which helps retain U.S.-trained physicians who work in underserved areas—are a key resource in this process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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