Eighteen months into the global pandemic, coronavirus is still overwhelming the U.S. healthcare system with death tolls topping those we saw over 100 years ago during the Spanish Flu epidemic, despite a widely available vaccine. Of those, more than 3,600 healthcare workers also lost their lives. 

Therefore, it is  little surprise that three in ten healthcare workers are considering leaving the profession due to burnout. Of course, there are myriad reasons why the U.S. healthcare workforce is overworked and understaffed, as detailed by my colleague Robert Orr, but there are only a handful of solutions.

Recruiting foreign-trained doctors and nurses is an easy fix to a complicated issue and one that bipartisan members of Congress currently support in two complementary pieces of legislation. 

Introduced first in 2020 by Senator David Purdue (R-GA) and reintroduced in May 2021by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act would recapture unused visas and provide 25,000 slots for nurses and 15,000 for doctors who could help in the fight against COVID-19. This would  provide additional coverage to rural America suffering under a lack of access to specialty physician occupations. To ensure timely relief, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be required to expedite the processing of these visas. To assuage any concerns — albeit misplaced — about competition with U.S. physicians, the bill requires employers to attest that foreign workers are not displacing American workers.  

The bill has substantial bipartisan political support and the backing of healthcare providers and hospitals, who write in a letter of support that the legislation would help fix the“unprecedented health care worker shortages.” 

The second proposal is the bipartisan Conrad State 30 and Physician Access Reauthorization Act, reintroduced by senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Joni Ernst (R-IA). This proposal allows certain foreign healthcare workers to waive the requirement they return home for two years by providing care for underserved populations. 

Generally, Foreign Medical Graduates (FMG’s) without U.S. citizenship must apply for a J-1 visa that allows them to remain in the U.S. until they complete their graduate education. Upon completing their education, those with a J-1 visa must return to their home country for two years before they are eligible to apply for an immigrant visa or permanent residence. 

The Conrad 30 program allows J-1 recipients to waive that two-year home residency requirement, contingent on fulfilling a 3-year commitment to work in a Department of Health and Human Services designated Medically Underserved Area (MUA) or Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). After serving in one of these areas for at least three years, the FMG’s can obtain permanent H-1B status. 

The newest edition of this bill increases the number of J-1 waiver slots allocated to each state above the cap of 30, which is particularly helpful in more rural states with more complex health care needs. 

These rural areas are hit harder by staffing issues in the healthcare system because they already lack sufficient medical resources. In areas where COVID has been particularly devastating, there exists long-standing difficulty recruiting doctors and nurses, exacerbated by emergent needs

Enhancing accessibility to healthcare in rural areas and saturating our depleted workforce with doctors and nurses is one way to alleviate the ongoing emergency needs of COVID and the parallel needs for ongoing care. 

To increase access to healthcare for all U.S citizens and prevent more deaths, Congress needs to prioritize passing these bills. 

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash