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Mandatory State Survey Could Help Doctors Pay off Med-School Debts

Measure could open door to millions in federal debt-forgiveness funds, more J-1 visas for foreign physicians.

Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean).
Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean).

At a time when New Jersey is facing a growing shortage of primary-care physicians, the state has come up with a new way to help new doctors pay off medical school and stay in the state.

And it all starts with a survey.

Under a bill ( S-1336) passed by the Legislature, doctors practicing in New Jersey would be required to fill out a survey as part of renewing their licenses every two years.

The state will use the mandatory surveys in order to learn which specialties and geographic areas face shortages.

More importantly, the survey will let New Jersey access millions of dollars in a federal student loan-forgiveness program, as well as enable it to obtain 30 temporary visas for doctors from other countries each year.

The absence of survey data has harmed the state’s entire effort to analyze and reduce physician shortages, according to Deborah S. Briggs, president and CEO of the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals.

“We are leaving federal money on the table,” Briggs said at a committee hearing on the bill.

In 2010, the state agreed to survey doctors, but the Board of Medical Examiners made the survey voluntary -- rather than mandatory. And the way it collected the data didn’t conform to the federal requirements, said Briggs, who described the earlier effort as “futile.”

“It is apparent that if the BME is not given specific directives to fulfill very specific requirements in a mandatory, data-gathering process . . . history shows their actions will not lead to any productive final product that will assist the state,” Briggs wrote in testimony to the Senate Health, Senior Citizens and Human Services Committee.

Briggs described the bill as one piece in an overall effort to retain young doctors, an area in which the state has been trailing other states.

“We actually are losing ground vs. gaining ground when it comes to our physician workforce,” Briggs said.

Bill sponsor Sen. Robert W. Singer (R-Monmouth and Ocean) said the survey will be useful in aiding medical schools and in attracting doctors to the state.

“This will just help us in the long run to identify the needs of the state for the future,” Singer said.

Along with questions about how much time a doctor spends at each of his or her offices, the survey also would whether electronic medical records are in use at each site and whether the doctor plans to retire in the next two years.

The survey would be completed online and is intended to take as little as five minutes, Briggs said. The data would be made available to medical professional groups and medical schools.

Briggs said her organization surveys medical residents every year, and the lack of J-1 visas -- which allow doctors from outside of the United States to practice here -- has been a top concern. Over the past two years, the federal government has granted only three of these visas in New Jersey due to the lack of data about shortages, Briggs said. That's out of a possible 60 visas over two years, which would have been granted if the survey had been mandatory. The J-1 visa covers professionals who do not plan to immigrate and whom an employer sponsors.

The New Jersey Hospital Association, the New Jersey Association of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons, and the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians supported the measure.

The Assembly passed the bill 63-12 on March 21, five months after the Senate passed it 36-3. Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren), one of the bill’s opponents, said he would be fine if the survey were voluntary but opposed making it mandatory.

Gov. Chris Christie now must decide whether to sign the measure.

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