Data on Use of J-1 Visa Waivers Needed to Better Address Physician Shortages
GAO-07-52: Published: Nov 30, 2006. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 2006.
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Many U.S. communities face difficulties attracting physicians. To address this problem, states and federal agencies have turned to foreign physicians who have just completed graduate medical education in the United States under J-1 visas. Ordinarily, these physicians must return home after completing their programs, but this requirement can be waived at the request of a state or federal agency if the physician agrees to practice in an underserved area. In 1996, GAO reported that J-1 visa waivers had become a major source of physicians for underserved areas but were not well coordinated with Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) programs for addressing physician shortages. GAO was asked to examine (1) the number of waivers requested by states and federal agencies; (2) waiver physicians' practice specialties, settings, and locations; and (3) the extent to which waiver physicians are accounted for in HHS's efforts to address physician shortages. GAO surveyed states and federal agencies about waivers they requested in fiscal years 2003-2005 and reviewed HHS data.
The use of J-1 visa waivers remains a major means of providing physicians to practice in underserved areas of the United States. More than 1,000 waivers were requested in each of fiscal years 2003 through 2005 by states and three federal agencies--the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, and HHS. At the end of fiscal year 2005, the estimated number of physicians practicing in underserved areas through J-1 visa waivers exceeded the number practicing there through the National Health Service Corps (NHSC)--HHS's primary mechanism for addressing physician shortages. In contrast to a decade ago, when federal agencies requested the vast majority of waivers, states have become the primary source of J-1 visa waiver requests, accounting for 90 percent or more of waiver requests in fiscal years 2003 through 2005. States and federal agencies requested waivers for physicians to work in a variety of practice specialties, settings, and locations. In fiscal year 2005, a little less than half of the waiver requests were for physicians to practice exclusively primary care. More than three-quarters of the waiver requests were for physicians to work in hospitals or private practices, and about half were for physicians to practice in rural areas. HHS does not have the information needed to account for waiver physicians in its efforts to address physician shortages. Without such information, when considering where to place NHSC physicians, HHS has no systematic means of knowing if an area's needs are already being met by waiver physicians.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Comments: HHS concurred with our recommendation, commenting that the department's goal was to assure that the limited resources of the J-1 visa waiver program and other programs addressing areas and populations with limited access to health care professionals are targeted most effectively. In 2013, HHS indicated that it was considering the best approach to collect information to identify J-1 visa physicians practicing in underserved areas. As of February 2018, however, HHS reported that it does not have the capacity to track physicians practicing in underserved areas through the use of J-1 visa waivers, citing reasons such as the number of federal entities and states involved in the process. While we recognize that collecting and maintaining these data requires coordination with other agencies, we continue to believe that without data on waiver physicians, HHS--the federal agency with primary responsibility for addressing physician shortages--will lack the information needed to consider waiver physicians working in underserved areas when placing providers in these areas under other programs. As of August 2019, HHS officials have not informed us of actions taken to implement this recommendation. We are leaving this recommendation open until the department collects and maintains data on waiver physicians and considers those physicians in its efforts to address physician shortages.
Recommendation: To better account for physicians practicing in underserved areas through the use of J-1 visa waivers, the Secretary of Health and Human Services should collect and maintain data on waiver physicians--including information on their numbers, practice locations, and practice specialties--and use this information when identifying areas experiencing physician shortages and placing physicians in these areas.
Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services