Impact of USDA Exit from Foreign MD Program Examined
The Wall Street Journal today reports on the impact of a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to end participation in a federal program that allowed foreign-born physicians to practice in underserved areas in the United States. Under Immigration and Naturalization Service rules, immigrants admitted to the United States to participate in educational exchange programs receive a J-1 Visa and must return to their home nations for two years after participation in the program before they can apply for an immigrant visa, permanent residence in the United States or an additional nonimmigrant visa. However, government agencies can request a waiver of the two-year home residence requirement. Since 1994, USDA has participated in the Waiver of Recommendations for Foreign Physicians program, administered by the Department of State, requesting waivers on behalf of foreign-born doctors who agree to practice in underserved areas for three to five years.
The USDA has sponsored waivers for 3,116 foreign-born physicians since 1994, a third of the total number sponsored by government agencies. In late February -- citing security concerns following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- the agency "abruptly abolished" participation in the program and returned requests for foreign-born physicians from 85 U.S. towns that "are soon to lose their only doctors." Although INS determines whether participants in the program have criminal records or appear on lists of suspected terrorists, the Journal reports that fears of terrorism prompted the USDA to "seal what seemed like a potential gap" in national security. "After Sept. 11, we took a hard look and realized we didn't know where the people we recommended were. We didn't have the ability to see if they're doing what they're supposed to be doing," USDA press secretary Alisa Harrison said, adding, "Security is the overriding issue for us." However, for the towns that will lose their doctors, the Journal reports that the "medical-terror threat seems less immediately terrible than the no-doctor-at-all threat"
(Newman, Wall Street Journal, 4/5).