USDA Ends Participation in Program Allowing Foreign-Born Doctors to Practice in Underserved Areas
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 1 ended its participation in a program that allowed foreign-born physicians to practice in underserved areas in the United States, a decision that could "threate[n] the future" of a number of rural hospitals nationwide, the Kansas City Star reports. USDA officials said the decision to end participation in the program is related to "security considerations" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Star reports (Dvorak, Kansas City Star, 3/25). Immigrants admitted to the United States to participate in educational exchange programs receive a J-1 Visa and are required to return to their home country for two years after participation in the program before they can apply for an immigrant visa, permanent residence in the United States or another nonimmigrant visa. "Interested Government Agencies," however, 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 run by the State Department, requesting such waivers on behalf of foreign-born doctors (USDA Fact Sheet, 3/22). If waivers are granted, foreign-born doctors must agree to work in underserved areas for three years (Kansas City Star, 3/25).
After the Sept. 11 attacks, USDA and other agencies reviewed their participation in the program, and on Sept. 26, USDA stopped processing waiver applications. The review, still ongoing, preliminarily found that USDA lacks the authority to conduct background checks on the foreign-born doctors whom it recommends receive waivers (USDA Fact Sheet, 3/22). Further, an investigation by USDA Acting Inspector General Joyce Fleischman revealed an "apparent scheme" in which nearly 160 foreign-born physicians provided false information to work at nonexistent clinics or employers (Scripps Howard News Service/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/28). USDA spokesperson Alisa Harrison called the program "important ... for rural communities," but added that the agency was ending its participation because officials decided that they "lacked the ability to make sure security considerations were addressed," such as conducting background checks.
Some federal lawmakers, including Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), have criticized USDA's decision. Moran, noting that the waiver program has allowed more than 2,000 foreign-born physicians to practice in rural hospitals and clinics, said, "If there is any federal agency that should be caring about rural America, it is the USDA" (Kansas City Star, 3/25). Moran, co-chair of the House rural health caucus, and more than 50 other lawmakers have requested an April 9 meeting with administration officials to address the future of the program (Scripps Howard News Service/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/28). There are other ways for foreign-born doctors to practice in the United States, USDA officials said, noting that federal law allows states to establish programs to recruit 20 foreign-born doctors per year for "communities that need them." Forty-two states have established such programs (Kansas City Star, 3/25).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.