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Immigration bill seeks to ease rules for foreign health workers


By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: May 22, 2013 - 6:15 pm ET
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After 30 hours of debate over a three-week period, the Senate Judiciary Committee has passed a bipartisan immigration bill that would seek to strengthen the country's healthcare workforce by making it easier for foreign health professionals to work in the U.S.

The panel voted 13-5 on Tuesday to approve the sweeping Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (PDF) that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced last month. In all, the committee considered 212 amendments in the bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would like to bring to the floor for debate in June, “sometime soon” after Congress returns from a weeklong Memorial Day work period.

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For the nation's healthcare industry, the legislation includes significant provisions that would make it easier for physicians, nurses and allied health professionals to work in the U.S.

“We think the bill that will go to the Senate floor is very positive for American-trained, foreign physicians,” said Samantha Burch, vice president of legislation and health information technology at the Federation of American Hospitals.

Included is a provision that would permanently reauthorize the Conrad 30 Waiver program, which allows state health agencies to recommend up to 30 waivers a year that exempt physicians on a J-1 visa from returning to their home country for two years. The legislation would also increase the number of waivers a state receives, and it would allow academic medical centers to receive three additional waivers.

Also, the annual cap on the number of H-1 B visas for foreign workers in specialty occupations would increase to 110,000 from its current 65,000. While most physician visa holders use the J-1, many use the H-1 B visa. The bill also addresses the H1-B's “cap gap issue.”

As Burch explained, residency fellowships typically end in June, but new H1-B applications aren't available until Oct. 1. “So it basically prevents a gap in work start dates and prevents America from losing American-trained physicians to countries with more attractive immigration policies,” Burch said.

The bill also includes a provision to increase the number of employment-based green cards, which Burch said would be especially helpful to nurses and allied health workers, such as physical therapists and occupational therapists.

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Meanwhile, individuals granted registered provisional immigrant status, blue-card status or V non-immigrant visa status would be able to buy private health insurance through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges, according to a bill summary from the National Immigration Law Center. But while individuals are in those provisional statuses, they would not be eligible for the premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions that the reform law provides to make coverage more affordable for low- and middle-income individuals and families, meaning many would likely remain uninsured.

As the Senate prepares to debate the immigration comprehensive bill, different groups of members in the House are working on legislation of their own. Last week, the so-called Gang of Eight in the House reportedly had a framework in place for a bill, while sources say Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is working on legislation that is likely to include the physician-related provisions in the Senate bill.

Burch said that the House is likely to introduce a series of immigration bills, rather than one comprehensive piece of legislation, and that she expects the two chambers to work out their differences on the issue through conference.

Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond


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