The Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act (HWRA) is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Todd Young (R-IN) and former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).
In March 2021, Sen. Durbin formally introduced the bill into the Senate to strengthen the country's healthcare workforce by recapturing unused visas and assigning them to foreign national physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals.
The intent of HWRA is to bring more qualified immigrant doctors and nurses into the U.S. to address healthcare employment issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It may also help alleviate the country's shortage of healthcare workers.
Addressing a Critical Workforce Shortage
Even though the senators unveiled HWRA at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to prompt immigration reform and support healthcare workers, it also addresses an issue that started before the pandemic.
Prior to 2020, the U.S. healthcare system already had a shortage of workers. Research from the New American Economy (NAE) shows that in 2018, before the pandemic struck, approximately 27 healthcare practitioner jobs were available for each unemployed healthcare practitioner.
Nursing is experiencing a labor shortage, which led to its categorization as a "Schedule A" occupation by the Department of Labor (DOL). DOL classifies occupations as "Schedule A" if there are not enough qualified workers in the U.S. for a specific job.
In the healthcare sector, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that there is an urgent need for more qualified healthcare workers.
As a result of the healthcare worker shortage, hospitals have repeatedly exceeded their capacity throughout the pandemic. In some instances, healthcare workers have worked shifts up to 24 hours, the Niskanen Center reports.
To compensate for the shortage, nurses have been called out of retirement to work, and school nurses have been called to hospitals to assist. More so, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports that pandemic and nationwide nursing shortage have led to increased burnout among staff.
Recapturing Visas as a Solution
One major issue in the U.S. immigration system that HWRA would address is unused visas. In total, the HWRA would allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to recapture about 40,000 visas for healthcare professionals, including 25,000 visas for nurses and 15,000 visas for physicians. If signed into law, the legislation would also help alleviate the shortage of healthcare workers in the country.
Unused visas are a widespread concern in the U.S. immigration system. Unissued visas in the healthcare industry have been particularly problematic during the pandemic as the country grappled with a shortage of healthcare workers. Despite the willingness of foreign healthcare workers to come over to the U.S. to improve the situation, help has been slow to arrive, according to the Niskanen Center.
Thousands of nurses from other countries have been hoping to get into the U.S. throughout the pandemic. However, because they are not typically eligible for temporary work visas, they must wait until immigrant visas are available. Many foreign nationals are subject to limitations, such as country caps and backlogs.
Several times in the past, Congress has managed to recapture unused visas. In 2000, Congress passed the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act. In 2005, it passed the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill. Collectively, the two pieces of legislation recaptured almost 200,000 visas.
Even so, the Niskanen Center reports that over 505,000 employment visas went unused between 1992 and 2009. Over 175,000 visas were unused and never recaptured between 2005 and 2009. By recapturing unused visas again, Congress could significantly enhance the nation's healthcare workforce by allowing qualified workers into the country.
HWRA proposes recapturing visas from a pool of previously unused employment-based visas Congress has already authorized. The visas would be issued by their priority date, and they would also be eligible for premium processing.
Ultimately, the bill may help to alleviate the shortage of healthcare workers in the U.S. Although it is designed to provide relief for an overtaxed healthcare system, HWRA would also remedy an employment situation that would likely persist into the future without legislative intervention.
A Timely Intervention?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a severe shortage of healthcare workers, and it has strained healthcare systems across the country. Luckily, there is renewed bipartisan support for a bill to repair the country's healthcare system.
The HWRA is awaiting further action in the Senate, and it has gained support from more organizations since its introduction, including the American Health Care Association/National Center For Assisted Living.
Originally published 20 April, 2022
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