International doctors caught in visa backlog

Foreign-trained physicians practicing in the United States are getting caught in a visa backlog.

The logjam has two physician groups worried about the impact on international physicians and medical students.

The American Medical Association, the country’s largest physician group, recently sent a letter (PDF) to the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asking the agency to clear the backlog for conversion of H-1B visas for foreign-trained doctors already practicing in the country so they can obtain permanent resident status.

There is a sizable backlog of international medical graduates, many of them from India and China. The backlog caused by per-country limitations for employment-based immigrants imposed by federal law means that the doctors are waiting to receive their green card although they are actively practicing here.

The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) urged the Trump administration to expedite review of pending H-1B/J-1 visa applications of international medical students who have been accepted into postgraduate training programs, to avoid unnecessary delays, according to India-West. The group’s president Naresh Parikh, M.D., urged the Trump administration to act quickly during an address earlier this month to AAPI leaders in New York. The AAPI is the country’s largest ethnic medical organization, representing the interests of more than 100,000 physicians, fellows and residents in the U.S.

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In its letter, the AMA noted the predicted physician shortage expected over the next 10 years and said foreign-born physicians are an important piece of the workforce. “Many of these physicians have been waiting for decades to receive their green cards due to the per-country cap,” wrote James L. Madara, M.D., the AMA’s CEO and executive vice president.

“These physicians play a critical role in providing healthcare to many Americans because they tend to choose primary-care specialties and work in areas of the country with higher rates of poverty; they are providing important medical services to communities in need,” he said.

According to a recent report, about 20.8 million Americans live in areas where at least half of the physicians are foreign-trained, Madara said. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts the U.S. could see a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030.

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The six-year limit on H-1B visas, coupled with a USCIS policy that applies the same level of scrutiny to both initial petitions and extension requests for certain nonimmigrant visa categories, is creating additional roadblocks for these physicians, Madara said.

It’s not the first time physician groups have worried about international residents and doctors securing needed visas to work in the U.S. In late May, seven major physician groups sent a letter to Immigration Services raising the alarm about how delays in processing visas could disrupt medical residents who were scheduled to start their training at hospitals around the country in July.

The groups were worried about the repercussions of delays in H-1B visa processing and the impact on patient care. The letter said non-U.S. international medical graduates who had accepted positions in the U.S. were facing increased scrutiny of prevailing wage data and in some cases reportedly had their applications denied. That was resolved when remaining cases were cleared using the wage data on the visa applications.