Washington The House on Tuesday voted to boost the number of foreign doctors allowed to stay in the United States when they agree to work in communities that are struggling to attract physicians.
Under terms of their visas, foreign medical students must return home for two years after their training in the United States. But the government often waives the requirement in return for three years of work in hospitals or clinics, rural and urban, where doctors are in short supply.
Waivers are granted at the request of federal agencies and of state health departments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had played the lead federal role, but the agency abruptly quit seeking waivers after some of the doctors turned up on government watch lists following the Sept. 11 attacks.
On a 407-7 vote, lawmakers on Tuesday approved legislation that would allow each state to request 30 waivers annually, rather than 20 under current law.
Kansas needs program
"Our rural communities depend on access to health care, and these are doctors willing to serve," said the measure's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. "We must continue to bring the two of them together."
The program has brought 98 physicians to Kansas during the past decade, Moran said. Of the estimated 1,400 waivers issued nationwide each year, about 600 are sought by states.
His fellow Kansas Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback, introduced similar legislation Tuesday in the Senate with Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
"The numbers I've seen show that about 20 counties in Kansas would be medically under-served if it wasn't for foreign-born physicians," Brownback said.
The House measure renews the state-request program for another two years, while the Senate version renews it permanently.
Ironically, Kansas is one of about five states that does not participate in the state-request program and has depended solely on USDA. The problem is the state's severe budget crunch, which makes the idea of a new state program impossible.
"If we had the resources, it's certainly something we would at least give strong consideration to," said Mike Heideman, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Missouri does participate, and seeks the maximum 20 waivers each year.
Brownback, Moran and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., were among dozens of lawmakers who protested USDA's exit from the program in February. USDA initially said it would return more than 80 pending applications from nearly half the states but later relented and is finishing those now.
In addition, the White House is forming a multi-agency task force to review the program once the pending requests are answered.
Recommendations from states and federal agencies go to the State Department's waiver review division. The Immigration and Naturalization Service issues final waiver approval.