HOULTON, Maine — The Trump administration’s decision to suspend the fast-tracking of work visas for skilled foreign workers could worsen Maine’s shortage of physicians, particularly in rural areas, according to Dr. James Raczek, chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
Eastern Maine Medical Center is “extremely concerned” about potential changes in immigration policies, Raczek said.
He estimated that 100 physicians “are currently at the hospital working in the U.S. on the broad spectrum of J-1, H-1B visas and green cards.
“It is critical to us that we have the ability to recruit and retain physicians from other countries,” he said. “They fill crucial roles at our hospitals and clinics and patient care functions because of them.”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that as of April 3 it will process applications for H-1B visas — those for skilled foreign workers — at the same speed as other visa requests. That means that rather than getting a visa decision with 15 days, H-1B applicants might have to wait months.
Officials at CIS said that suspending “premium processing” will allow the agency to reduce a backlog of the specialized visa applications and in the end reduce overall processing times.
Trump has accused companies of abusing the H-1B program as a way to hire foreign workers, at lower salaries, who take jobs away from Americans, according to CNN Money.
Raczek said that EMMC is far from the only hospital relying on foreign doctors.
“Other medical centers have foreign-born physicians that they rely on to give patient care,” he said. “It is not like they are taking jobs from U.S. citizens. They are crucial to our health care system.”
Gordon H. Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Hospital Association, said that the suspension will “impact both hospitals and patients.”
He did not know how many foreign doctors are currently in Maine on specialty visas, and the state Department of Labor did not return calls.
While the proposed suspension would not impact the physicians who are currently practicing at The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, it would affect the arrival of new providers who are being recruited, according to Karen Gonya, TAMC’s communications manager.
“For TAMC, we are now expecting a delay in the addition of a new cardiologist to our team of specialty providers, with the possible delay of other new providers that we are in the process of recruiting,” she said.
Exchange visitors who came to the U.S. on a J-1 visa to complete graduate medical school or their training also had been able to apply to stay in the country under a waiver — provided they agreed to practice for at least three years in a medically underserved area.
But in order to be eligible for the so-called Conrad 30 waiver, the newly minted doctors also must be accepted under an H-1B visa or they have to leave the country for two years before they can apply to return, if they wish to practice in the U.S.
In a letter sent this week to acting CIS Director Lori Scialabba, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, called on the agency to address its administrative needs without sacrificing support for the waiver program.
They noted that it “has brought more than 15,000 physicians to underserved communities over the last fifteen years.
“Health care facilities rely on premium processing to avoid delays in placing doctors in health care facilities where their services are desperately needed,” the senators wrote. “The suspension of premium processing will delay when these doctors can begin to serve patients in underserved areas across the country. That delay could harm patients and communities who rely on local health care facilities utilizing Conrad 30 doctors to fill critical needs.”
Tom Moakler, chief executive officer of Houlton Regional Hospital, said that there are three doctors working at the hospital under J-1 visas. He said he does not believe that the suspension will be permanent, but that if it lasts too long, it could have a significant impact on the hospital.
“It would have an impact on any hospital in The County, I imagine,” he said. “We all rely on doctors with J-1 Visas.”