To Fill Slots, Lawmakers Consider Bill to Help Foreign MDs Stay in NJ

Beth Fitzgerald | June 8, 2012 | Health Care
Bill would require ‘scope of practice’ from all doctors to determine shortage

As New Jersey copes with a doctor shortage that’s getting worse, the Legislature is considering a bill to help foreign doctors stay in New Jersey once they complete their residency training here.

Senate bill S2002, which cleared the Senate’s health committee on Thursday, requires New Jersey physicians to complete an online survey that seeks to document the extent and the severity of the state’s physician shortage. The federal government requires evidence of the doctor shortage before it will grant New Jersey visa waivers — up to 30 per year — to allow foreign doctors to stay in New Jersey when their residency training ends, instead of returning to their home country.

Deborah Briggs, president of the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals, said the U.S. grants visa waivers to foreign doctors who agree to practice medicine for at least four years in areas that need doctors. To demonstrate that New Jersey does indeed have regions of physician scarcity, the bill requires all New Jersey doctors to fill out what is known as a “scope of practice” survey.

Briggs explained that the federal government sets a high bar for states to prove their physician shortage is sufficiently serious that foreign doctors should be allowed to stay here when their medical school training ends and their medical school visa expires.

To meet that federal requirement, the bill mandates gathering detailed data about where New Jersey doctors practice, their specialties, how many hours a week they work, and whether or not they are taking new patients.

The survey would be conducted in 2013, when doctors will apply to the state Board of Medical Examiners to renew their licenses, which is done every two years.

Because New Jersey has not sufficiently demonstrated its physician shortage to the federal government, it qualifies for only a few visa waivers a year, instead of the 30 that are allotted to each state, Briggs said.

Documenting the state’s physician shortage would also help the state retain U.S.-born doctors, Briggs added. Once New Jersey has demonstrated to the federal government that it has a physician shortage, the state will become eligible for more federal student loan repayment grants. These grants, up to $120,000, are awarded to doctors who agree to practice medicine in a medically under served area.

The New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, has not yet taken a position on the bill, according to incoming president Dr. Meg Fisher. Members were concerned that an earlier version of the bill had too many questions, some of which might be difficult for doctors to answer and could lead to misinformation. A revised version of the bill passed the committee Thursday, and Fisher said her organization would now consider taking a position on it.

“We understand the importance of getting information on the physician work force and we absolutely support the Council of Teaching Hospitals,” she said. “We do think that it is very important to know who is practicing in New Jersey and what their subspecialties are.”

New Jersey has enough general pediatricians at the moment “but we have an incredible shortage of pediatric subspecialties, and particularly surgical subspecialties,” Fisher said. Shortages include pediatric neurosurgeons, cardiac surgeons, neurologists, developmental pediatricians and emergency medicine pediatricians. In adult medicine there is already a shortage of generalists in family and internal medicine.