In the midst of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has revised some requirements of the J-1 waiver program. It has loosened certain restrictions in an effort to allow more healthcare professionals to work in the United States. It is currently unknown whether these revisions are permanent or temporary for the duration of the pandemic. However, for now, the purpose is to increase the number of physicians and employers eligible for J-1 waiver sponsorship recommendations.
Future medical professionals who come to the U.S. as J-1 exchange visitors to study or train in graduate-level education programs (fellowships or residencies) face a home residency requirement. Once their program is over and they graduate, they are required to return to their home country or last permanent residence for a duration of two years before they are eligible to apply for an H-1B visa, an immigrant visa, or an adjustment of status.
Waivers to the home residency requirement are available from government agencies, most commonly under the Conrad 30 waiver program. J-1 foreign medical graduates are allowed to bypass the two-year home residency requirement if they work for at least three years in certain medical professional shortage areas as designated by the federal government on an H-1B visa. Foreign workers must have completed residency within the past year and specialize as primary-care doctors in family medicine, general pediatrics, general internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology, or general psychiatry.
Traditionally, participation in this waiver program has been limited to specific categories of healthcare facilities located in a medical professional shortage area with a score of 7 or higher. However, the pandemic-related revisions have expanded this participation to include all such facilities in such areas with a score of 7 or above. Expanding the number of healthcare facilities eligible for these kinds of physicians increases the number of jobs for which foreign physicians can apply and treat patients.
The HHS places no limit on the number of waivers available per fiscal year. If programs included in the Conrad 30 program have already filled their quotas, physicians and their employers are encouraged to apply through the HHS for another chance at practicing medicine in the United States.