Growing up in rural Montgomery County, Iowa, I’m all too familiar with the challenges of accessing medical care, especially if you or a family member needs to see a specialist.
Sadly, postponed procedures, limited hospital beds, and long wait times for experts like cardiologists and OBGYNs have become the norm across our state, and rural areas feel it the most.
While Iowa may proudly rank first in corn production, in 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges ranked Iowa 44th for health care provider-to-patient ratio. This means that many Iowans are not receiving the care they need, and our small pool of doctors is feeling increasingly exhausted and burnt out.
Right now, every state is given 30 waivers per year to allow highly-skilled immigrants who attend medical school in the U.S. to remain on a three-year visa in exchange for their commitment to work in a health professional shortage area.
Like clockwork, Iowa uses all 30 of our waivers annually, but considering our shortages, we have the capacity and the need for more. Last year, our state was forced to reject 14 doctors due to the cap, while as many as 400 waivers set aside for other states went unused in 2022!
That’s why I’m leading the bipartisan Directing Our Country’s Transfer of Residency Slots (DOCTORS) Act.
My commonsense solution would allow states, including ours, which have exhausted their waivers, to tap into these unused slots to meet demand where physicians are desperately needed. This would develop a pipeline for more than 30 new specialty providers to practice in our state annually.
When I first announced the bill at the Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, I was joined by amazing doctors from Broadlawns, MercyOne, and UnityPoint.
Dr. Edward Rojas, a cardiologist with UnityPoint, received one of Iowa’s 30 waivers after the political environment in his home country of Venezuela declined. Now, with over ten years of experience, he’s serving Iowans, accepting new patients at UnityPoint, and can help educate folks in both English and Spanish.
Dr. Wafic Itani, another cardiologist at UnityPoint, is currently practicing on a waiver. Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, Dr. Itani just began working in Iowa this summer and has been seeing between 15 and 16 patients a day since he started.
By ensuring these waivers are used in the areas that need them most, I’m confident that more specialists like Dr. Rojas and Dr. Itani will come to Iowa and fall in love with our beautiful state and kind people.
While there is more to be done to ensure all Iowans can access the care they deserve, I look forward to the DOCTORS Act benefitting patients and the hardworking providers across our state.
Joni Ernst, a native of Red Oak and a combat veteran, represents Iowa in the United States Senate.