When President Donald Trump issued his “Travel Ban,” there were fears that the physician shortage in the U.S. would be exacerbated. It has been reported that there is currently a deficit of 8,200 primary care physicians that will balloon to 94,700 by 2025 as the population ages. For many years, many foreign physicians from Muslim-majority countries have been helping to fill the shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S. Those individuals may now be rethinking their plans due to fears of anti-immigrant sentiments and possible long delays in obtaining visas.

To exacerbate the problem, the Conrad 30 J-1 Waiver Program will expire on April 28th if it is not renewed. More than 15,000 physicians have participated in the Conrad 30 program that allows foreign physicians to remain in the U.S. after completion of their clinical medical training without having to fulfill the two-year home residence requirement, as long as they agree to work in federally designated underserved areas for at least three years. Upon obtaining these Conrad 30 waivers, physicians then change to H-1B visa status to commence their employment. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) have introduced bipartisan legislation to extend and improve the program to increase the number of physicians in those areas.

The Conrad State 30 & Physician Access Act would:

  • Extend the program to 2021;
  • Allow for more than 30 (“Conrad 30”) slots for doctors per state;
  • Provide work authorization for spouses of physicians in the programs; and
  • Provide contractual protections to the physicians by prohibiting non-compete agreements and spelling out medical malpractice coverage.

The American Medical Association strongly supports the bill, stating that: “Many communities, including rural and low-income urban areas, struggle to attract physicians to meet their patient needs. This legislation will help to ensure continued access to care in medically underserved communities across the U.S. The American Hospital Association has urged “swift action to extend [the] program.”

The travel ban and the possible suspension of the Conrad 30 program are not the only issues affecting the number of foreign physicians in the U.S. The USCIS’ suspension of premium processing for H-1B visa petitions is complicating the problem because it is delaying the start dates for physicians to begin serving patients and communities in these underserved areas. Senators Klobuchar, Collins and Heitkamp also sent a letter to the USCIS asking the agency to continue premium processing of H-1B petitions for physicians to begin their post-waiver employment. Medical associations would also like to see medical professionals exempted from the H-1B cap.

As the end of April approaches and a possible government shutdown looms, we will continue to follow events in Congress.