NBRC launches Visa Waiver program to attract more physicians

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Dec. 6—PLATTSBURGH — Much to the relief of rural, underserved communities struggling with health care access, the Northern Border Regional Commission has launched its J-1 Visa Waiver Program.

Some much needed help is now on the way.

The program will look to improve rural access to quality health care and ease the ongoing national health care provider shortage that many rural hospitals, like The University of Vermont Health Network-Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH), are currently facing by easing the visa requirements for physicians who are trained in the United States — if they agree to practice in Health Professional Shortage Areas and Medically Underserved Areas in the Northern Border Region for three years at 40 hours per week.

RURAL COVERAGE

NBRC's coverage includes rural areas of Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

The program, modeled after the successful Appalachian Regional Commission's J-1 Visa waiver program went live Tuesday and will be available to 56 of the 60 counties in the Northern Border region. Based on estimates, this will include over 200 health care facilities where it will be available.

"We know that without reliable health care, not everyone can be fully active in their community or participate fully in the workforce," Federal Co-Chair for NBRC, Chris Saunders, said at a CVPH news conference Tuesday.

"We have American medical schools that train thousands of international students every year, and upon completing their degrees, the terms of their visas require these doctors to leave the United States (for two years). These doctors want to stay here and we, as a country, have invested in their education and we want them to stay."

The NBRC program will complement other existing programs like the Conrad 30 waiver program, which has a cap on the number of waivers it offers.

Lisa Mark, MD, Regional Physician Leader and Vice President of Medical Affairs/Chief Medical Officer at the UVMHN Medical Group, said in the past, they were forced to turn away well-trained candidates, because they had to be strategic in how many waivers they asked for through the Conrad 30 program.

Unlike the state-based program, NBRC's has no cap, Saunders said.

"Now we won't have to say 'no' anymore," Mark said. "So this will allow access for our patients, more physicians, for us to be able to offer the services we really need to offer."

Mark said they are looking to fill specialty and primary care positions.

"It's quite the mix."

GOOD PLACES

Mark Pattison, New York Deputy Secretary of State for Local Government, said the NBRC program will be key in attracting physicians to rural communities they would have otherwise not gone to.

"These are good places," Pattison said about the rural communities standing to benefit from the program's implementation.

"These are places where people want to be, but sometimes, when they get here and they say, 'Oh, this is a great small community. and they say, well, health care is 100 miles away, or in order to get broadband, I got to go to the school parking lot.' That makes it a lot harder to recruit and retain qualified people for a variety of things. So this is one step."

Director of Staff Recruitment at CVPH and Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone, Lisa VanNatten, said the J-1 applicant pool is vast because most physicians want to stay in the states to practice but their opportunities are usually limited.

The program coming to fruition is now "exciting" for VanNatten and should be for the whole community, she said.

"It changes the way we're going to be able to do recruitment; we're going to be able to consider more applicants. That helps us, helps our entire region, helps our entire network. There are so many needs from anesthesia to urology."

Other recruitment tools VanNatten says they offer potential candidates include a loan repayment program.

"We offer relocation also to all our new physicians, so we help them relocate. We help the entire physician family when they are recruited to the area. They come with families, with children, we put them up for school tours, they have community tours with real estate agents," VanNatten said.

"So yes, they need to find a good job where they'll be professionally satisfied. They also need a community, a school and an area where their family will thrive and be happy, so we offer all of those services as well."

Realistically, physicians in the program can potentially start at the hospital in June of 2024, when they finish their training, she said.

GOVERNMENT HELP

Saunders, who serves as a member of the Biden Administration, said it was a bipartisan effort that made the program materialize.

"We live in a time when folks are losing faith in institutions and they're doubting the ability of the government to do big things," he said. "I want to say that the widespread support for this program from elected officials, at all levels of government, really gives me great hope about our collective ability to work together."

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who pushed for the program, welcomed the news.

"This is just what the doctor ordered to help recruit more highly qualified physicians and a major step to helping address the national healthcare worker shortage we are seeing in rural communities across America and in Upstate NY. Rural communities from Penn Yan to Plattsburgh, know the struggles of healthcare worker shortages all too well," Schumer said in a statement.

"This long awaited initiative will help provide rural and underserved areas across Upstate New York with quality, affordable healthcare by working to address ongoing physician staffing shortages. I am proud to have advocated for this program, and to be leading the charge to help the NBRC get the increased support it needs to continue vital programs like this. I will never stop fighting to ensure that every New York community, regardless of its size, has access to the quality medical care it needs."

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) said the program will address issues she has been fighting to fix.

"Following my advocacy, the Northern Border Regional Commission will launch its J-1 Visa Program to help provide rural and underserved areas across Upstate New York and the North Country with accessible, quality, and affordable healthcare helping to alleviate the physician shortage I have been working tirelessly to address," Stefanik said in a statement.

"Last week, I heard directly from a NY-21 constituent in Copenhagen about how the physician shortage in her area was affecting her family's access to healthcare, during my Medicare Telephone Town Hall. These physicians will provide critical medical services in rural areas of our states currently suffering from physician staffing shortages."

Email: cnewton@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: CarlySNewton