At a time when America’s health care system is being strained to the breaking point and states are summoning medical professionals into emergency service, many immigrant physicians say their hands are tied by U.S. visa restrictions that remain in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking with VOA from Logan, West Virginia, Indian-born Dr. Rama Krishna Yalamanchili said immigrant doctors are being trained in the United States and stand ready to do more to help during America’s time of urgent need, but many are legally constrained.
“I am on a H-1B visa [for workers in specialized fields]. ... I am authorized to work at a specific hospital and in a specific job,” Yalamanchili said. “Even in my hospital, I can’t work anywhere except in the specific job I got.”
Yalamanchili is one of thousands of foreign doctors who are working in the U.S. on temporary visas. He specializes in internal medicine. His contract gives him 10 days off after working 15 straight days.
“During my time off, I want to be able to help in areas in need,” he said.
Professionals like Yalamanchili can change jobs while living in the U.S. only if they apply to transfer their visas. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for adjudicating visa requests, temporarily cut back on services and closed offices to the public until May 3.
Immigration lawyer Greg Siskind said restrictions on doctors are tightly defined by their residency programs. Foreign doctors are overseen by the State Department and the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates.
“They put a lot of rules as far as where doctors are allowed to work, how many hours they can work, and all that has to be approved by the State Department and by ECFMG, as far as any variation from what they're supposed to be doing,” Siskind said.
During a White House press briefing Wednesday, President Donald Trump did not respond to a VOA question on waiving visa restriction for immigrant doctors.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr said, “Immigration laws are no longer under the administration of the Department of Justice and I haven't been participating in any of those discussions.”
Last week, the American Medical Association (AMA) urged the Trump administration to “take critical steps to expand the physician workforce to meet the increasing demands on the American health system during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The AMA urged creation of a process in which physicians already in the U.S. could receive expedited consideration when seeking a change of status to either begin a U.S. residency or assume a position in an underserved area of the U.S.
They also asked officials to issue a public statement confirming that immigrant physicians can be redeployed to new rotations within their current contracts as needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers from the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed U.S. census data on 164,000 health care professionals. They found 16.6% were non-U.S.-born and 4.6% were noncitizens.
In the meantime, the State Department is encouraging medical professionals seeking work in the U.S. to contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for a visa appointment.
"The distinction being that given capacity considerations, embassies/consulates abroad might consider interviewing J or H medical applicants with an approved petition on a case-by-case basis," according to a State Department spokesperson.
The spokesperson told VOA a medical professional would need to have an offer of employment from a U.S. employer and an approved petition before applying for an H-1B visa. A medical graduate participating in an exchange visitor program as an "Alien Physician" would need to have an approved Certificate of Eligibility (DS-2019) issued by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG).
Routine visa services are suspended but officials at the agency and other overseas posts are still working on the most urgent visa applications.
"The Department of State stands ready to work with doctors and other medical professionals who are already accepted into existing U.S. programs and otherwise already planned to travel to the United States to work or train,” the State Department spokesperson said.
Like many foreign workers, immigrant doctors fret about their ability to work at all if their visas expire while immigration offices are closed.
“I'm also worried about my visa paperwork at the same time … because I need to have some visa paperwork taken care of before the end of June,” Dr. Shantanu Singh, a pulmonary and critical care specialist, told VOA.
Singh is currently working on the front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic in West Virginia.
He noted that immigrant physicians cannot participate in direct patient care or telemedicine in locations not specified in the visa.
“This takes thousands of physicians out of the pool that can buttress the loss of doctors from exposure, infection and illness while fighting the pandemic,” he said.
Mark Law, chief sales officer with the medical staffing company CompHealth, said he has seen a significant increase in requests for pulmonologists and respiratory specialists.
Though CompHealth does not work with physicians with work visas, Law said having them available would ease the strain on hospitals.
“That would add to the pool [of available doctors], for sure,” he said.