The visa process for foreign doctors working in rural areas is slowing down, and it could result in a doctor shortage at hospitals this summer.
“There’s a lot of concern,” said Dr. James Raczek, the Chief Medical Officer at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. “We need international individuals who can come and practice here.”
Dr. Raczek said it’s already difficult to recruit doctors in rural areas, making the opportunity to hire foreign physicians more important.
Previously, foreign doctors applying to work in rural “under-served” areas could go through a “premium processing” fast-track for an H-1B visa. Doctors in demand could start working in a matter of weeks.
But in April, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it would temporarily suspend premium processing for all H-1B petitions, for up to six months.
This means foreign doctors will have to wait in line – and could possibly take months to get their visas approved.
“It’s a big deal because these people are very necessary to where they’re going,” said Sara Fleming, an immigration lawyer at Portland law firm Ford Murray. “Instead of knowing that these physicians will be able to start on time…we don’t know when they’ll be able to start.”
The Maine Hospital Association worries that 20 out of Maine’s 36 hospitals are now vulnerable to a potential doctor shortage.
“There’s no doubt that [the immigration policy] is starting to have an effect,” said MHA President Steven Michaud.
He worries that a doctor shortage will mean patients pay the ultimate price.
“It means you’re either going to go without care, or you’re going to have to travel further to get it,” Michaud said.
Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) is already working on the issue. In March, Sen. Collins signed a letter to the director of the USCIS, asking the agency to re-instate the premium processing option for foreign doctors going to rural hospitals.
In the letter, lawmakers warned that the doctors are “desperately needed,” and that a delay could “harm patients.”
The USCIS has stated that petitioners may submit a request to have their petition expedited. The agency believes suspending the premium processing option will allow them process long-pending petitions, and help reduce overall H-1B processing times.