In a move that would impact Detroit Lakes and other small Minnesota cities, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), has introduced bipartisan legislation to boost the number of doctors able to work in rural areas.
The Conrad State 30 & Physician Access Act would allow more international doctors to remain in the U.S. after completing their residency, under the condition that they practice in underserved areas, such as rural communities.
"Rural communities in Minnesota and across the country are short on doctors, and they rely on the Conrad 30 program to fill the gaps," Klobuchar said. "Over the last 15 years, the Conrad 30 program has brought more than 15,000 physicians to underserved areas."
Patients at Essentia Health have benefitted from the program, said Kris Olson, vice president of physicians and professional services at Essentia. "It impacts Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids, Pelican Rapids and Menahga, some of our rural areas," she said.
Some of the doctors practice family medicine and others come with "a high amount of specialized training," she said. "We would be in favor of the legislation," she added. "It would open up the net a little bit for highly specialized individuals to serve our communities."
Essentia recruits the most highly-skilled person for the job, she added. "We're not giving jobs away to other countries ... there is a shortage in primary care physicians and some of the specialties. It's hard to recruit in general because the pools (of candidates) are getting smaller and smaller."
A large group of Baby Boomer-age doctors are nearing retirement age, and not enough young people are going to medical school to fill the impending vacancies, she said. Improving the Conrad 30 program is one way to make sure rural communities are served by good doctors.
Klobuchar said it's senseless to force American-educated doctors to leave the country once their residency is over.
"Our bipartisan legislation would make this critical program permanent, allow doctors to remain in the communities they serve, and improve healthcare for families across the nation," she said.
Before the Conrad 30 program (named after former U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota) doctors from other countries working in America on J-1 visas were required to return to their home country after their residency had ended for two years before they could apply for another visa or green card.
The Conrad 30 program allows doctors to stay in the U.S without having to return home if they agree to practice in an underserved area for three years. The "30" refers to the number of doctors per state that can participate in the program.
The legislation (also sponsored by Susan Collins (R-ME), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) extends the Conrad 30 program until 2021, improves the process for obtaining a visa, and allows for the program to be expanded beyond 30 slots if certain thresholds are met, while still protecting small states.
The bill also allows the spouses of doctors to work and provides worker protections to prevent the doctors from being mistreated. A version of the bill was included as an amendment in the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013.
Olson said Essentia has 43 physicians working under either a J-1 visa (as part of the Conrad 30 program) or a H-1B visa, out of more than 1,900 physicians and advanced practitioners.
"The biggest thing people need to understand is we go through a lot to make sure we have competent, knowledgeable and skilled staff in all their communities," Olson said. "I'm proud of what we go through to make sure there are quality people in all these communities."
The legislation has received the endorsement of the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the American Association of Medical Colleges.