Opinion

COVID Relief Must Address Rural Provider Shortage to Give Middle America Fighting Chance

The United States has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly six months. Our health care workers on the front lines are stretched thin, risking burnout that could result in consequences that stretch beyond the public health emergency. With collective optimism of a lighter summer caseload giving way to a harsher reality, Congress must come together and act now to shore up the health care workforce and provide critical reinforcements to areas in need.

Hospitals in the hot spots are seeking more physicians to help fight — but many rural regions have little margin for error and limited capacity to attract the professionals they need. For rural communities, more money may not be enough to change the trajectory. However, Congress can address the shortage in the next COVID-relief bill by including important changes to immigration policy — the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act (S.3599) — that can unleash health care providers into the communities where they are needed most.

Even better — the bill has broad, bipartisan support as Senate leaders in both parties are backing this commonsense, tailored fix to address a pressing issue. Sure, negotiating major legislation involves many moving parts, but leaving this on the sidelines despite its broad support remains a headscratcher.

S.3599 would offer protections and unleash thousands of doctors that are already in the front lines in our communities. They can take up assignments in locations that are short-staffed or experiencing undue case load — activating critical reinforcements to fight the risk of burn out and ensure hospitals on the brink have somewhere to turn for additional highly trained staff. The bill boasts support from most major medical organizations, health care systems, professional bodies, state medical societies and universities.

Unlike financial support or funds to acquire critically important resources like Personal protective equipment or ventilators, Congress cannot necessarily create new health care providers to address rampant shortages out of whole cloth via legislative text. But it does have the sole authority to provide thousands of physicians with the necessary immigration status that would allow them the freedom and flexibility to take their talents to the communities most in need.

For many talented and dedicated professionals, being on a temporary work permit prohibits them from working for anyone or anywhere but the authorized location they are tied to. Rural health systems in the best of times struggle to attract providers to their communities.

Were Congress to include the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act in the final COVID package, it would empower providers already on the front lines to be able to go where they are needed, providing valuable reinforcements against the pandemic but also addressing the longstanding disparity in healthcare access rural Americans face.

The bipartisan legislation also boasts broad support from the medical community and is fiscally responsible: providing immigration status costs taxpayers nothing — but could prove critical in beating back the pandemic and stabilizing our economy. Furthermore, every doctor that is a beneficiary of this bill will be an economic injection to their community in these times of great economic distress, each doctor contributes directly or indirectly to employment of 17 people and generating wages and benefits of more than 1.3 million — according to economic analysis from the American Medical Society.

COVID is an urgent challenge and Congress must lead by including any possible policy that can make a difference until the science has an opportunity to catch up. Stabilizing the health care workforce is a pressing priority with a clear and simple solution: S. 3599.

With the Senate negotiating the next, and possibly final COVID relief package, policies like the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act can address the multifaceted challenge must be in the mix, beyond just financial relief or support. This is particularly true for the healthcare workforce and even more so in rural America.

Supporters of S.3599 of both parties should be sounding the alarm this week. If we are serious about unleashing the strongest possible response to the COVID pandemic in this final package, now is the time to tackle every angle of the problem. Bipartisan-supported policy should be at the front of the line, to ensure we can get providers onto the front lines.

America stands at a critical juncture: We must marshal all the resources we can to fight the pandemic amidst the summer surge. Addressing the pandemic remains the only way to fully stabilize our flagging economy, let alone open things back up.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has an important opportunity to deliver another win for middle America by adding this legislation into the final package.

Stabilizing our health care workforce and unleashing providers into our rural communities represents an important step in that fight. S.3599 can make it happen — if the bipartisan coalition that supports it raises their voice during negotiations.

 

Dr. Ram Sanjeev Alur is the founder of Physicians for American Healthcare Access, a member-based organization with hundreds of doctors working throughout the country. 

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Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misspelled “Chance” in the headline due to an editing error.

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