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U.S. News
Visa change likely to lessen medical care in rural areas

Thursday, April 18, 2002

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Rural health-care advocates told a federal panel in Pittsburgh yesterday that proposed visa restrictions threaten to deplete the supply of physicians in some rural and urban communities.

Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has sponsored J-1 visa waivers that have allowed more than 3,000 foreign doctors to stay in the United States, provided they work in medically underserved areas.

Earlier this year, the USDA announced it would no longer sponsor the waivers because of security concerns.

The department notified lawmakers Tuesday that it was reconsidering the issue and would, for the time being, process more than 80 waiver requests that had been in limbo.

But the ultimate fate of the waiver program remains uncertain. Three rural health-care advocates told an advisory committee to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson yesterday that the program must be maintained in some fashion.

Foreign doctors play a critical role in providing health care to some rural and urban communities because most U.S.-trained physicians choose not to practice in those areas, said Dr. Wayne Myers, a retired physician from Waldoboro, Maine, who was invited to address the secretary's advisory committee on regulatory reform.

One study, for example, has shown that if all international medical graduates were removed from practice, the number of rural counties with no primary care physicians would rise from 161 to 212, Myers said. In 1996, international medical graduates accounted for more than 18 percent of all the primary care doctors practicing in areas lacking health professionals.

Robert L. Harman, chief executive officer of Grant Memorial Hospital in Petersburg, W.Va., said his state would be hit particularly hard.

"With 44 of 55 counties in West Virginia designated as medically underserved, many hospitals and clinics in our state rely upon the J-1 visa program for physician services," Harman said. "In many of these areas, the J-1 physician is the only source of health care."

Thompson's advisory committee came to Pittsburgh for the third of five meetings being convened around the country to gather suggestions about how to improve department regulations that health-care providers find onerous. The committee will meet again today at the Ramada Plaza Suites, Downtown, to discuss privacy regulations.

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