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New policy stalls permits for foreign nurses

/ Source: The Associated Press

The government announced plans to block a shortcut that has allowed thousands of foreign nurses to get fast-track U.S. work permits, a move that could worsen a nationwide nursing shortage when it takes effect next year.

In an announcement Thursday, the State Department said the nurses — predominantly from the Philippines — will not be allowed after Jan. 1 to use the shortcut that has allowed them to begin working in U.S. hospitals as quickly as 60 days. Those applications could now take up to three years or more.

“It’s basically going to cut them off,” said Charles Oppenheim, head of the State Department’s immigrant visa control division.

The new policy, which also could effect doctors and tech workers, is the indirect result of a more efficient immigration process. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the system became backlogged due to updated security measures. Many foreign workers from the Philippines, and to a lesser extent India and mainland China, got by on temporary work permits as they waited for their “number” to come up for a green card.

Now those cases are being processed, and the government has decided it will no longer issue temporary work permits for workers from these countries until it deals with the backlog, which could take several years.

Hospitals hurt

The change is bound to hurt hospitals already operating with too few nurses, health economist Len Nichols said.

“The Philippines are our major source of imported nurses, and we’ve been doing that at a clip of thousands a year for a while now,” said Nichols, vice president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Recruiters have long sought nurses from the Philippines, where schools train nurses to work in the United States.

Robert Salasar, 31, a nurse from the Philippines, began working at a Los Angeles area hospital in July and is awaiting his green card. “It’s much better pay and less patients,” he said of his job here, “and you can have it personalized and individualized for each one.”

Salasar now worries about friends and family back home who will have to wait years to get the chance he had.

Immigration attorney Carl Shusterman, whose firm represents hospitals throughout California and helps about 350 Filipinos nurses a year find jobs in the United States, said he frequently obtains work permits for qualified nurses in 60 days, allowing them to work as they wait the roughly three years for their permanent residency.

“There’s no way for us to keep a nurse here for three years until we have the job,” Shusterman said. “It’s like meeting some guy, falling in love and saying you can’t be together for three years.”

More nurses needed

U.S. authorities have warned that the country could face a shortage of roughly 275,000 nurses by 2010, though exact estimates are difficult to come by. Technology will likely reduce the number of nurses needed in the future, but the aging U.S. population will require more.

Gwen Matthews, a senior vice president for Glendale Adventist Medical Center just north of Los Angeles, said she is worried because the 430-bed hospital plans to open a new wing in two years and will need 90 new nurses.

“I’m doing a lot of local recruitment, but we do expect it’s going to take foreign employment as well,” she said. “We anticipate we will have more than what the local market can provide.”