Fifty-five Hahnemann University Hospital residents holding J-1 visas face the possibility of deportation if they cannot secure a position in an accredited program within 30 days of the hospital’s closure.
The visas enable foreign physicians to come to the U.S. for training at accredited medical schools. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Tower Health has offered $7.5 million to buy Hahnemann’s 500-plus residency and fellowship slots, as well as the hospital’s Medicare ID number, which dictates the number of medical residents for which the hospital can receive federal funding.
But Tower has only eight accredited programs — significantly fewer than the 35 programs currently operating at Hahnemann, according to a court filing in the Hahnemann bankruptcy case. That’s a problem for many residents, but especially for those with J-1 visas.
“We are very concerned about them,” said Jaime Sanders, an anesthesiologist at Hahnemann. Under the terms of their visa, they cannot have any “gaps” in their program, which will end when the hospital closes. Closure is slated for September.
The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG), which is headquartered in Philadelphia, has already met with the residents to reassure them, said William W. Pinsky, president of the organization. It has offered each resident $2,000 to help with the extra expenses they face as a result of the closure, he said.
“We feel a moral obligation as well as a regulatory obligation for the J-1 visa holders,” he said. The nonimmigrant visas, which the U.S. also issues to research scholars, professors, and others in programs promoting cultural exchanges and training, are tied to a particular program. The residents need to reapply if they transfer to another hospital, he said.
On Monday, lawyers for the ECFMG along with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) filed a petition in U.S. Bankruptcy court asking that an ombudsman who was appointed to represent the interest of the patients and employees also represent the interests of all the residents.
“We are concerned no one at ground level is working for all of the residents,” said Pinsky, who noted that the closure announcement on June 26 came so close to the July 1 start date for residents that there was no time for anyone to prepare.
“It would be unconscionable if anybody gets deported,” said Pinsky. The ECFMG has been in touch with the State Department, which said it will review, on a case-by-case basis, anyone who does not have a position lined up within the 30-day period, he said.
“They are trying to be as flexible as they can within their legal expectations,” he said.
The U.S. is considered the best place in the world to pursue postgraduate education in medicine, he said.
“These are individuals who have worked incredibly hard to come here for training,” Pinsky said. “Resilience has gotten them this far and all of a sudden this is all being taken away from them.”
If a resident with a J-1 visa leaves the U.S., fearing they may be deported, they will have to go through the entire application process again, from their home country, he said.
“I would caution anybody about making rash decisions,” he said.
Last week, a group of residents in the anesthesiology department at Hahnemann with J-1 visas said that getting deported is a real concern for them.
They need to find another sponsoring program and also get paperwork from their home country, said a resident from India, who asked that The Inquirer not use her name because she considers her situation precarious. She is not sure that can all be accomplished in the short time left.
What’s more, her visa is attached to an academic medical center involved in research. Tower Health, which has offered to take over the residency program, has community hospitals that don’t fit that description, she said, adding that medical research is a key reason she came to the U.S.
She would rather return to India and reapply to another program, but that would cause a significant delay in her training, the resident said.
International students are an important part of medical training in the U.S., where there aren’t enough native-born students to fill the demand for residents.
There are 11,000 J-1 physicians in training throughout the country, Pinsky said. Hahnemann has a medium-sized program. Nationally, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami has the highest number of J-1 visa holders with 222 residents. Albert Einstein Medical Center has the highest number in Philadelphia, with 63 positions filled with J-1 visas, according to the ECFMG.
Some residents have family members that come to the U.S. on J-2 visas, which are tied to the J-1 visa, said Pinsky. Their status would also be at risk, he said.
Longer term, losing foreign residents can have an impact on health care for the most vulnerable Americans.
After residents’ training is finished, they are required to leave the country and must wait two years before applying to return. The exception: Visa holders can stay in the U.S. if they agree to practice in an underserved rural or urban location for three years, he said.
Those who apply for the waiver frequently end up staying in the community where they trained, Pinsky said.
The size of the Hahnemann resident displacement could have ripple effects, he said. “Nothing like this has ever happened before in the country in terms of this size of training program,” said Pinsky.