Addressing the health care worker shortages that made COVID-19 worse

In the depths of the pandemic, courageous health care workers rushed to hotspots to support their overwhelmed colleagues. New York City leaders called for an influx of 45,000 medical professionals. States and local governments waived licensing requirements to staff-up desperate hospital systems. The federal government sent surge response teams to stressed hospitals. At the same time, thousands of highly trained doctors and nurses eager to assist their communities were unnecessarily kept on the sidelines. 

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I know, because I’m one of them.

In 2007, I came to the United States from India to complete my residency. Today, I serve this nation’s heroes at a Veterans’ hospital in Illinois. Like many other immigrants, I love this country and I’m proud of what I do. Unfortunately, my H-1B visa prevents me from working — or even volunteering — anywhere but for my employer.  ADVERTISEMENT

When my adoptive home—in a truly desperate hour—needed me and thousands more immigrant healthcare providers, outdated laws and bureaucratic red tape kept some of the most skilled nurses and physicians from scrubbing in.

Temporary visas deny foreign-born doctors the flexibility to assist in areas where medical personnel are needed. This policy prevented doctors and nurses from responding to calls for help when COVID-19 cases overwhelmed hospitals, particularly in underserved areas with years-long staffing shortages. 

We’re finally seeing optimistic signs from Washington. Leading Republicans and Democrats agree on this specific issue, even as they discuss comprehensive immigration proposals. President Joe Biden recently threw his support behind congressional efforts for reform. It’s past time to update a broken system keeping hardworking immigrants in limbo instead of at patients’ bedsides.

The fix is called The Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act. It would enable thousands of foreign-born medical professionals to respond to hospitals requesting staffing reinforcements, while recognizing the risks frontline health care workers face, including from the delta variant and other concerning variants. The bipartisan legislation would also streamline the admission of nurses to respond to extreme staffing shortages across the country, particularly in rural areas. In total, 40,000 highly trained health care heroes could join America’s medical roster. 

The extra hands are just in time. As one South Florida health care executive explained, “The pandemic caused a perfect storm in a sense — we saw some nurses retire, others leave because of the risks the job involved, and others are leaving the field because of increasing work shifts.” Not only could these new workers combat the pandemic, but they’d also tackle chronic health challenges that plague communities. ADVERTISEMENT

Even before COVID-19, rural areas endured a physician shortage. Families (especially pregnant women) in underserved communities have faced longer drives, endless wait times, and worsening health outcomes. In 2019, roughly 10,000 residents in North Carolina’s Camden County relied on a single primary care physician and a handful of nurses. A study from last March reported 14 Nebraska counties had no primary care physician at all. Across the country, patients are waiting for a doctor to be in. 

This proposal would repurpose unused employment-based visas already authorized by Congress. It includes safeguards to ensure incoming medical professionals would address these dire shortages, not displace American workers. No American-born doctor or nurse would lose their job. And our government would prioritize the delivery of quality health care to places that have lacked it for far too long.

Even in the palpable partisanship of Washington, good ideas like this one are receiving strong support on both sides. The Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act has more than a dozen bipartisan supporters in the Senate — including top-ranking members of both parties. We’re grateful for the continued strong leadership of Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, to put qualified practitioners in places that could use them most. Senate Leaders Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) should advance this agreement from their trusted leadership teams to prove both parties can still work together on commonsense solutions.

In a medical emergency, you don’t ask where your doctor was born. Your biggest concern is that you get treated by a top-notch medical professional as quickly as possible. We can show gratitude to American healthcare heroes by giving them the reinforcements they deserve.

Senators should pass the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act — include it in any immigration or human infrastructure proposal. It’s the best way to support communities desperate for medical care and the professionals ready to offer it. 

Ram Sanjeev Alur, MD, is the president of Physicians for American Healthcare Access and a hospitalist at the Marion VA Medical Center in Illinois.

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