Amid a shortage of nurses in the battle against COVID-19, many foreign healthcare workers have been waiting for their US visas to be granted in order to start work. However, senior health officials in the US say that they have seen ‘progress’ in efforts made to streamline the US visa process to allow more overseas health workers into the country.
However, despite the progress, officials argue that more still needs to be done to make the US visa application process quicker. Amid the pandemic, the rate at which US visa interviews have been conducted has slowed considerably, largely because of the mass closure of US embassies and consulates worldwide.
According to official figures released by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, as of November 2021, only 28,964 out of more than 490,000 qualified immigrant visa applicants are scheduled for an interview.
According to Sinead Carbery, brand president of O’Grady Peyton International, the international division of leading health care staffing recruitment firm AMN Healthcare, at least 10,000 foreign-trained nurses have been waiting for a US visa interview anywhere between 12 and 18 months.
Carbery claims that part of the delay can be attributed to what she described as a ‘four-tier system’ that the US Department of State (DoS) introduced in 2020 to prioritize cases.
She said: “While the system was intended to work through the backlog by granting higher priority to petitions filed by immediate family members, for example, it placed employment-based visa petitions, which includes visas sought by health care professionals, among the last in line to be processed.”
Expedite the visa process
Healthcare trade groups are now urging the DoS to expedite the US visa application process for foreign-trained nurses as the country’s health crisis worsens.
President of the American Hospital Association (AHA), Richard J. Pollack said: “There has never been a more urgent need for the care that foreign-trained nurses provide than during the current COVID-19 pandemic and its looming aftermath. These professionals play critical roles in ensuring the health of the communities we serve.”
Back in August 2021, a coalition of long-term care organizations led by the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living sent a letter to US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, calling for the immigrant visas of international nurses and healthcare workers to be given higher prioritization.
Meanwhile, also in August, the DoS said that it would allow consulates to choose whether to expedite visa cases involving certain healthcare workers who would be working on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
On November 10, the coalition sent a second letter urging the DoS to allow virtual interviews and waive the immigrant visa interview process for nurses altogether.
“We need to prioritize health care workers who wish to live and work in the United States, especially those who are willing to care for our nation’s most vulnerable. Expediting the visa authorization process for these heroes would help us build back our workforce and expand the number of seniors we can serve,” the letter said.
Tier-based system rescinded
On November 19, the DoS announced that it was rescinding its tier-based prioritization system, stating that embassies and consulates would have ‘broad discretion’ to determine how to prioritize US visa appointments.
Carbery said: “Several US embassies located in the countries of origin for a majority of international nurses who come to the US, such as the Philippines, have begun to put nurses higher up on the prioritization list for interviews.”
“It’s a good sign that they have started to move. They need to continue the momentum because the shortage is almost feeling like a crisis at this point,” she added.
An official for the DoS said: “The department remains focused on reducing wait times for all consular services at our embassies and consulates overseas while also protecting the health and safety of our staff and applicants.”
According to data released by the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 500,000 immigrant nurses worked in the US in 2018, representing 15.5% of the country’s nursing workforce.
Meanwhile, a recent survey of 600 nurses conducted by O’Grady Peyton International found that approximately 86% of international nurses providing care in the US have treated COVID-19 patients.
Worryingly, since February 2020, the US healthcare sector has lost more than 400,000 workers, according to an employment report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The pandemic has reportedly fuelled an exodus of international nursing professionals. An estimated 30% of nurses have either quit or been laid off from their jobs since February 2020, according to a poll in September by Morning Consult of 1,000 workers, with 54% reporting COVID-19 as the primary reason for their departure.
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