Even as many people hope for critically necessary financial support for struggling hospitals across the country, this next coronavirus relief package represents perhaps the best chance to address a critical issue facing rural America that has been magnified by the pandemic: the devastating shortage of health care providers in rural communities.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has done a tremendous job providing for rural hospitals and patients in the first rounds of coronavirus relief. I had the opportunity to visit with him last week during one of his Western Kentucky visits, and I talked to him about Sen. David Perdue’s bipartisan Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act (S.3599), which ensures hospitals have the staffing they need to serve patients during this unprecedented public health emergency.
Kentucky is one of the most underserved health care provider states in the nation, with just 77 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents, according to a 2016 survey. A similar story is playing out in almost every rural community in middle America — there simply are not enough providers to meet these area’s needs.
I work in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Marion, Illinois, and I treat hundreds of patients from Kentucky every year, with many driving several hours for their treatment. Although my practice group now has multiple providers, many of my colleagues who are the only doctor in their specialty for these patients. If they were to retire, there are no other doctors in the area to replace their services — forcing additional, unnecessary, and ultimately, avoidable hardship on these patients from rural America.
That’s where Sen. Perdue’s Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act comes in. If included in the next COVID package, it would facilitate the entry of nurses with approved immigrant visas and allows physicians with approved immigrant petitions to adjust their status, so that they can help our nation fight the coronavirus and have a durable immigration status — opening the door to up to 25,000 skilled nurses and 15,000 physicians — deploying these professionals to communities most in need.
America has a long successful history with foreign-born physicians treating patients in underserved areas, and we must embrace this successful model even more in the face of the pandemic and other chronic health care issues.
With COVID surging across America, particularly in rural states, our communities need bold, decisive action from Congress to address the physician shortage that plagues so many rural areas. This bill will provide critical reinforcements at a critical moment.
Looking beyond the COVID crisis, adding additional providers to our rural networks sets the stage to improve health outcomes further down the road through more widespread and reliable access to quality care, closer to home — saving lives without costing taxpayers a penny or displacing a single American worker.
And to be clear, the shortage is not unique to Kentucky. I founded Physicians for American Healthcare Access (PAHA) as a consortium of physicians across the country in rural communities concerned with the lack of providers, particularly specialists in their communities. I constantly hear from providers in rural communities, worried that their facilities—which were already struggling with limited capacity to handle a non-pandemic surge—are even more vulnerable now.
For decades, McConnell has made rural health care access a priority and he has delivered mightily for his people, as his recent work on the CARES Act has shown. As the only congressional leader not from New York or California, he is the lone Senator from middle America who truly understands the health care needs of rural communities.
When negotiations on the next COVID package commence, we hope McConnell delivers for Kentucky once again by including the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act in the final text. It will help Kentucky fight off coronavirus now and its other health problems for years to come.
Dr. Ram Sanjeev Alur is the founder of Physicians for American Healthcare Access (PAHA) — a member-based organization with hundreds of doctors working throughout the country. He can be emailed at email@example.com