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Hospitals tout benefits of J-1 visa waivers; call for renewal of Conrad State 30 program

April 16, 2012
  Are J-1 physician visa waivers a boon to medical care in rural areas? Just ask John Jeter, M.D., president and CEO of Hays (KS) Medical Center. During the past 15 years, the medical center has recruited through the J-1 visa waiver program more than 20 foreign physicians specializing in cardiology, general surgery, orthopedics, radiology and other areas, increasing access to care for Hays’ 20,000 residents and neighboring communities in northwestern Kansas.

“We’re the only hospital in a very large geographic area that has 24/7 coverage in most specialties, and we couldn’t do it if we didn’t have the ability to recruit some of these physicians,” says Jeter. “Patients would have to be transferred a couple hundred miles away for specialty care.”

Hays Medical Center is one of many hospitals and clinics that recruit foreign physicians through the Conrad State 30 J-1 visa waiver program. Set to expire June 1, the program allows state health departments to request J-1 visa waivers for up to 30 foreign physicians per year to work in federally designated health professions shortage areas or medically underserved areas.

The AHA last month urged swift enactment of the “Conrad State 30 Improvement Act,” S. 1979, legislation that would improve the J-1 visa waiver program and make it permanent.

About 4,000 J-1 doctors are employed nationally under the program, which Congress created in 1995.

“I would hate to think what would happen if the program wasn’t extended,” says Ed Pitchford, CEO of Charles Cole Memorial Hospital, a 94-bed critical access hospital located in rural Coudersport, PA, which has recruited 10 J-1 visa physicians over the past decade. “It would eliminate for us a pool of highly qualified physicians that we rely upon having access to in order to meet the needs of our community.”

Under U.S. immigration law, foreign students admitted to the U.S. to attend medical school are granted J-1 visas. The visas require them to return to their countries for two years after completing their education before they can apply for an immigrant visa, permanent U.S. residency or an additional nonimmigrant visa.

The Conrad State 30 program enables these foreignborn physicians to get a new visa if they agree to perform 40 hours a week of primary care in a medically underserved area for three years.

Their wages are required by law to match those of similarly skilled American colleagues. When they complete their obligation, they are allowed permanent legal residency and can pursue U.S.

citizenship.

Rose Bunch, physician recruiter for Charles Cole Memorial Hospital, notes that the U.S. is already experiencing a shortage of physicians, particularly with those specializing in primary care.

Attracting physicians to a small, rural community is difficult, but the Conrad State 30 program provides “another avenue of recruitment” for hospitals hit hard by physician shortages. She says the typical J-1 visa physicians’ “skill level is exceptional” as many have completed top residency programs in the U.S.
and have experience practicing in their home countries.

“Our experience is that they have been very good physicians,” says Pitchford, who acknowledges that retaining the physicians after their three years of service has been challenging for his hospital and other institutions that use J-1 doctors.

S. 1979, which is sponsored by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-ND, would allow states to receive more than 30 waivers per year if necessary and provide incentives for physicians who receive their training on an H-1B visa to participate.

Mary Ellen Pratt, CEO of St. James Parish Hospital, a 20-bed critical access hospital in Lutcher, LA, has expressed strong support for the program before the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals, which administers Conrad 30 in the state. She says Conrad 30 helps ensure that Lutcher-area health clinics can continue to provide essential care to low-income residents. “The biggest benefit is increasing access to care for patients in our parish,” says Pratt.

By Pete Davis