Could new immigration laws fix the doc shortage?

As millions of new patients gain insurance under health reform, U.S. immigration laws continue to restrict access to care, lengthen wait times for appointments and increase emergency room crowding, Forbes reported.

That's because immigration policies prevent a sufficient number of foreign-born physicians, nurses and other medical personnel from working in the United States, according to a new study from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

The report noted that more than 30 million more people would be insured under President Obama's health reform law, making it "incumbent for the U.S. government to enact immigration policies" to guarantee medical workers are on hand to serve those new patients.

With a growing demand for care, some organizations have been looking into foreign-trained healthcare professionals to fill workforce gaps, FierceHealthcare previously reported. For instance, the Welcome Back Initiative is a free-of-charge, nonprofit organization that helps foreign-born healthcare professionals gain credentials to work in the United States.

The NFAP report also called on Congress to expand the number of employment-based green cards so foreign-born nurses, physicians and physical therapists only have to wait weeks or months to obtain them, instead of years or decades, Forbes noted.

Moreover, by expanding the Conrad 30 program to include many more physicians in states and nationwide, Congress will help patients in underserved areas, as well as allow more U.S.-trained doctors to pursue specialized medical fields, according to the report.

Under the Conrad 30 program, J-1 waivers are limited to 30 per state, so large states, including Texas, New York and California, usually use the 30 slots within days. And oftentimes, 10 of those 30 slots are already reserved for large regional facilities and academic institutions, leaving small, rural facilities particularly strained, the NFAP noted.

In May, the American Hospital Association supported a proposed bill to make the program permanent and allow state health departments to receive more than 30 waivers per year if necessary.

Meanwhile, new proof-of-citizenship requirements in Georgia are burdening physicians and healthcare professionals to prove their citizenship or legal residency as they apply for or renew their professional licenses. State lawmakers said processing delays are unintended consequences of the "necessary immigration law."  

For more:
- read the Forbes article
- here's the study (.pdf)