FIn 2016, Rishab Gupta worked to establish a life for himself in the United States, completing his medical residency in New York before moving to Boston with his wife Vandita for a neuropsychiatry fellowship last year. But when Gupta flew home to India to care for her dying mother amid the devastating wave of Covid in the country earlier this month, she knew she was leaving that life behind.
“I had no choice. I knew it was a risk, but I had to do it, ”he said from his hometown of Ludhiana. “She fought bravely, but unfortunately that couldn’t save her.” While grieving, Gupta is now indefinitely separated from Vandita, who stayed behind in Boston.
The sudden increase in the pandemic in India prompted Joe Biden in April to impose a ban on most travel from the country, which has seen more than 10 million new cases and at least 100,000 deaths due to the coronavirus. Biden’s travel restrictions have left many like Gupta in a bind, in large part due to the tenuous visas they rely on to practice medicine in the US.
Gupta’s J-1 visa, issued to many foreign doctors, is not exempt from the travel ban, and even if you were to apply for a waiver, your visa must first be revalidated at the embassy. With consular services downgraded due to the pandemic, appointments are rare. But foreign medical workers like Gupta and his advocates say they wouldn’t be in this situation if they had more permanent and flexible visas.
The role played by foreign doctors has never been more apparent than in the past year, when so many have put themselves at risk while fighting on the front lines. More than a third of the more than 3,600 US healthcare workers who died from Covid were immigrants, and many of them served in safety net hospitals and clinics.
However, the battles facing immigrant doctors began years before the pandemic. J-1 and H1-B visa holders are often tied to their employers and cannot easily change jobs, much less move locations within the country while experiencing decades of waiting for green cards, which offer more flexibility.
In the meantime, these doctors are crucial to the functioning of the US healthcare system – according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, USA. a shortage of up to 139,000 doctors by 2033. And yet thousands of foreign doctors come to the US for medical training each year, many are unable to stay in the country long-term due to immigration regulations.
But there is renewed hope that the legislation proposed before Congress will help address the problem and secure much-needed doctors for America’s healthcare system.
The Health Sector Workforce Resilience Law (S.1024), which 13 bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate, would provide green cards, or permanent residency, to 40,000 foreign medical professionals. With permanent residents exempted from the India travel ban, the value of owning one is particularly important right now.
But beyond the human impact permanent residency would have on the lives of foreign doctors, advocates say it is crucial to addressing gaps in the healthcare system.
“They are going to go to one of our competing countries like Australia, the UK or Canada who love American training,” said Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer who advocates for foreign doctors as a member of the International Medical Graduate Task Force.
Such migration can be a waste of US tax dollars: Medical residents’ salaries are subsidized by Medicare, regardless of nationality.
“When these doctors are kicked out of the country … essentially it becomes the United States subsidizing doctors in countries perfectly capable of affording to train doctors themselves,” said Siskind, who is also concerned that the ban on travel avoid about 2,000 apprentices since the start of residency programs this summer.
Physician shortages are especially acute in rural America. As a result, despite the prevalence of anti-immigration sentiment among many Republican legislators, S.1024 has significant support from Republican senators representing large rural and medically underserved areas.
Awareness of the role of foreign doctors in rural communities is not new. Raghuveer Kura, a nephrologist who has lived in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, for the past 10 years says that when he was stuck in Canada with a visa problem in 2019, he only returned after gaining support from the government.
“It is up to you to decide how you want to recover … If I don’t get to Poplar Bluff in the next three days, people will die because there is no one to do their dialysis.” Kura, who is the founder of Physicians for American Healthcare Access, said he told government officials.
In Missouri, Kura believes that the fact that S.1024 is co-sponsored by a high-ranking Republican like Senator Roy Blunt is a sign of the increasing extent to which the contributions of foreign doctors are being recognized. Even so, he acknowledges that there are still pockets of resistance to the legislation.
“Josh Hawley and others don’t get it,” Kura said, referring to the junior senator from Missouri. “They think we are stealing jobs. Nobody is stealing jobs. We provide a service. If these international doctors are not here, who will take care of those people? We are trying to help. “
Siskind believes that S.1024 should be passed for both moral and practical reasons, and that it could be the first immigration bill to become law under Biden.
“It is in our own interest to pass this bill as Americans, and in fact, it is in the interest of the people who really deserve the relief as well … it is in the interest of all,” he said. “We have invested in these doctors for decades in some cases, and they are serving the populations most in need than anyone else.”
Although Kura’s green card means that he is not limited by the travel ban, he is still concerned about being stranded if he went to India right now if he contracted Covid. It is a concern that stems from responsibility to the community it serves, and underscores how dire the shortage of physicians is in the United States.
“In a period of 10 days there will be nothing that can be done [in Poplar Bluff] because I have 90 patients on dialysis. I have to take care of the hospital alone. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism