Klobuchar Takes to Senate Floor To Talk About Immigrant Health Care Heroes – May 6, 2020

Posted on: May 6th, 2020
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When Senator Kent Conrad retired, some were worried about the future of the J-1 physician program that bears his name (the Conrad 30 program). I have to admit I was one of them. I had the honor of presenting Senator Conrad an award from the physician immigration bar thanking him for his years of dedicated work bringing health care to rural and inner-city America. America lucked out when Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar picked up the mantle. She has worked tirelessly to ensure the program survives and is leading the effort to expand and improve Conrad 30. Today she delivered remarks on the Senate floor praising immigrant health care heroes which we are including below:

Mr. President, I come to the floor today in the midst of this national crisis, this pandemic, to talk about one hero among many. 

First I want to thank Senator Durbin for his tireless leadership on a very important topic, the topic of immigration, and for taking the lead in bringing us together today to recognize heroes in health care during this coronavirus pandemic.

As many of you know, this pandemic is personal to me. My husband, John, was hospitalized with the coronavirus not too long ago. And though he is a great person and I am so proud of him for coming through it all and giving his plasma recently, he’s actually not the hero I’m referring to.

I’m talking about an immigrant doctor who is on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in Rochester, Minnesota. She’s asked that her name not be used publicly, because she’s applying for a green card. She came to the United States from her home country for postgraduate medical training and completed not one, but two fellowships in critical care and pulmonary diseases at the Mayo Clinic. Which happens to be where my husband gave the plasma, which we hope will help save other lives.

Under normal circumstances, an immigrant doctor who completes his or her postgraduate training in the U.S. has to leave the country for at least two years when their residency is complete. Now, let’s look at that again. They have studied in an American medical school, they have completed their postgraduate training in the U.S., but then they have to leave the country for two years when their residency is complete. Just at a time when we need more doctors and more health care professionals and not less. Why? Because our immigration laws require them to be outside of the country for two years before they can apply to come back here on a work visa.

But under the Conrad 30 program, named after Kent Conrad, the senator who once represented North Dakota, and since he left I’ve taken this on with many of my colleagues to continue this program and make sure it gets reauthorized and we would like to see it expanded. Why did he get involved in this in North Dakota?  Well that’s because they had a shortage of doctors in rural areas. And under the Conrad 30 program, doctors who commit to caring for patients in an underserved area – like rural communities, or other areas that may be underserved, including urban areas – if they face a shortage of doctors these doctors are allowed to start practicing in the U.S. immediately, without having to wait two years.

I just keep repeating this – they got  their training in the U.S. They got degrees in the U.S. 

That’s why for years I have led bipartisan legislation—which has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the National Rural Health Association—that would extend this program and allow international doctors trained in the United States to remain in the country if they practice in underserved areas.

It was through this program that this hero I’m talking about, this immigrant doctor, was able to stay in Minnesota and eventually begin practicing at the Mayo Clinic as a critical care specialist—where she sees patients from all over rural areas of southern Minnesota. And she was working in the intensive care unit when the first coronavirus cases started coming through the door.

Critical care and pulmonary disease specialists are some of the most in-demand doctors during this pandemic. And as one of these specialists, this doctor has been managing patients on ventilators, patients with kidney failure, patients with blood clots.

She has cared for coronavirus patients on oxygen, and manages the team that resuscitates patients whose hearts have stopped. She has literally saved lives, this immigrant doctor.

Her hospital regularly provides telemedical support to other Mayo Clinic facilities, and even a hospital in Georgia. 

And when the Mayo Clinic received clearance to provide assistance to a hospital in the Bronx where the medical staff was stretched dangerously thin as we see on TV every single day, she volunteered. This immigrant doctor volunteered, during her free time using the hospital’s telemedicine equipment.

Talking about her service during this pandemic, she has said “This is not a job, this is a calling. We do this for love.”

Her requirement to work in an underserved area as a condition of the Conrad 30 program ends this year. But she has no plans to move and to leave this country and to stop providing care to patients if she can help it.  She said, “I love Minnesota. I hope Mayo never lets me go.”

I hope that too. She is an American hero, and we could use a lot more like her.

Over the last 15 years, the Conrad 30 program has brought more than 15,000 doctors to underserved areas, including many rural areas that are short on doctors and rely on the program to fill the gaps. I have been at VA hospitals in other parts of the country and their number one ask was this, because they don’t have enough doctors in the rural areas where their clinic is located to serve their patients. This is a common sense program with bipartisan support—I introduced a bill to reauthorize the program, which we have successfully done in the past, but I introduced a bill with Senator Collins and Senator Rosen, and it has 15 cosponsors. Senators King, Ernst, Cramer, Coons, Blunt, Capito, Baldwin, Wyden, Thune, Merkley, Wicker, Carper, and Paul. What brings all these senators together—it is not a common ideological belief on many issues—it is because they are looking out for their states and they want to save the lives of people in their states, especially during this pandemic by allowing doctors who have been trained in the United States of America, who have gotten their degrees, who have done their residencies, to be able to stay in our country. 

Today I am asking all my colleagues to support the inclusion in the next piece of legislation that is coming our way that we must pass to address the coronavirus.

I’ve also called on the Administration to take action to increase the number of doctors that are here to help fight this pandemic and help alleviate the serious strain this pandemic has placed on our health care system.

First, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should resume expedited processing for employment-based visas for doctors. On March 20, USCIS announced a freeze on expedited processing during the pandemic, which could exacerbate our shortage of doctors, especially in underserved rural areas. With Representative Bradley Schneider of Illinois, I led a bipartisan group of 24 senators—and I want to again thank Senator Durbin, who has been such a leader on these issues, for his support for this—and 13 members of the House in asking USCIS to expedite processing for doctors again. We still haven’t received a response.

Let’s think about what’s been happening since we sent that letter on March 20. The increasing number of deaths. The assisted living homes, including those in rural areas, which have been plagued by this pandemic, which have lost dozens of their residents to this pandemic. Think about some of the rural areas that have been hit hard that simply don’t have the hospital beds or the ventilators. Think about all that going on. The thousands and thousands of people who have lost their lives and still we wait. March 20th – bipartisan group of senators that have asked for help. Since that freeze on March 20th  was put into place, we await a response. 

Second, USCIS should give flexibility to health systems so that doctors on employment-based visas, like the Minnesota doctor, the hero that I just told you about today, who couldn’t even have her name released when she is managing teams of people—not because she’s here illegally, no. Because she wants a chance to get her green card. Like the doctor who I’ve told you about today, who  can provide care where they need it the most. Many doctors in similar circumstances are willing to volunteer to treat patients in the hardest hit areas, just like she did when she volunteered to help with that hospital in the Bronx—but many are worried that doing so and leaving their home hospital will put their immigration status in jeopardy.

Last month, I led a letter with Representatives Tom Cole, Abby Finkenauer, and Bradley Schneider that was signed by 18 other senators—again including Senator Durbin and 29 House members urging USCIS  to waive restrictions so that doctors can practice in crisis locations. Once again, we still haven’t received a response.

Is that because the president wants to take a back seat again – to the governors of this country, when in fact, federal policy is holding back not just equipment from where we have hot spots, but now actual doctors and medical personnel. And if they’re good enough to get a degree at a medical school in the U.S. and if they’re good enough to practice in some areas of the country, they’re not good enough to practice where we have the hotspots? 

Rather than acknowledging the help that immigrant doctors are providing during this public health emergency, this Administration’s rhetoric has made them feel unwelcome. It’s one of the reasons the Minnesota doctor asked that I not use her name.

When discussing the process of applying for a work visa, she noted, “At the same time you’re taking medical boards, you’re also filling out hundreds of pages of paperwork to prove that you’re worth keeping.”

Ok, picture this. So while she is saving lives, managing the team that resuscitates people, volunteering her time to help with a hospital in the Bronx, caring for patients on ventilators, bringing their hearts back to life, while she’s doing all of that, she somehow has to prove to our government that she is someone worth keeping. 

As she says, “It’s very disheartening at times.”

But she isn’t giving up on us. She said, “All of us who come from foreign countries, we’re here because we want to be here—we love this country.”

And for these brave men and women, it’s so important that we do everything we can to protect them and their loved ones—not just from the uncertainty that comes with being immigrants, but the risks of the current crisis.

So many of our immigrant medical personnel have died. Not just in our country, but in other parts of the world as well. They died while saving lives for people in the country that they love. 

We need to ensure all our doctors and frontline health workers have supplies and equipment like face masks, gowns, and shoe covers so that no one has to reuse their supplies and risk exposure to the virus.

And we need to implement a real national testing strategy so that we can get ahead of this virus and target resources accordingly.

The testing blueprint announced by the Administration on April 27 falls well short of a comprehensive testing plan and puts all responsibility for testing on the states.

Two weeks ago, I was proud that we passed an interim relief measure that included $25 billion to expand our nation’s coronavirus testing capacity—and it will go a long way to ramp up molecular and serum testing, something that Mayo is a leader on, to diagnose active virus infections, identify antibodies against the virus, and support contact tracing.

This investment is a start, but we know there is so much more work to be done to ensure Americans across the country have access to accurate testing technologies and innovative treatments that they need to reduce the risk of infection.

Our health care workers on the frontlines—including our immigrant health heroes who sacrifice so much in the pursuit of medicine and service—they deserve better. And when the president goes after immigrants in his press conference. You know who I keep thinking of? I keep thinking of this doctor, this hero in my home state who risks her life everyday managing patients and managing teams of doctors because of her know-how, because of her trust that an institution like the Mayo Clinic has put in her. What are we thinking? These heroes should be heralded, not condemned. 

In closing, I want to share this quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” That’s exactly what these immigrant health heroes are doing. They chose to be in this country and to come here because they wanted a good life for themselves and their families and they knew they were going to have to work hard to make that happen. They got a degree, they’re on the frontlines, then they chose to keep working to save lives. During an incredibly dangerous pandemic they understand that courage is not the absence of fear – of course they’re afraid when they go to those jobs – but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear. Their life’s mission, to them, is more important than fear. Saving someone’s grandma, or saving someone’s husband, they’ve decided that is more important to them than fear. They choose service over fear. And what I’m asking our colleagues to do here is – we understand there is anti-immigrant sentiment out there – we know it, we hear it everyday from the president, but I’m asking you to actually believe that your service is more important than that fear that has been stoked. 

Certainly a number of our colleagues have decided that when they were willing to get on that bill, Democrats and Republicans, to reauthorize the Conrad 30 program. To allow these immigrant heroes, these doctors that were trained in our country to be able to keep doing their work. Let me mention their names again – the cosponsors of this bill – Collins, Rosen, King, Ernst, Cramer, Coons, Blunt, Capito, Baldwin, Wyden, Thune, Merkley, Wicker, Carper, and Paul. And of course I mentioned Senator Durbin. 

They’re willing to do that, and there’s so much more we’re willing to do. And we still await an answer of why these visa processing for these health care workers was suspended.

Service first. Fear last. That’s what these doctors did and that’s what we must do first. That’s what we must do now. 

Madam President, I yield the floor.