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Congress OKs extension on waiver for J-1 visas

If Obama signs off, the program that sends IMGs to medically underserved areas would get six more months before another extension is needed.

By Brian Hedger — Posted March 26, 2009

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A bill to extend the Conrad 30 program for international medical graduates has passed Congress and awaits a signature from President Obama.

The program allows IMGs using the J-1 visa to bypass a requirement to return home for two years after training. In exchange for the waiver, they agree to work in medically underserved areas for at least three years.

The House voted on March 4 to extend the program, which was set to expire on March 6. The Senate did not approve the bill until March 11. If signed into law, the measure would extend the program through Sept. 30.

"All the [physicians] who have J-1 visas and are already in the Conrad 30 program are still practicing. It does pause the new waivers they give out, though," said Matthew Shick, legislative analyst for the Assn. of American Medical Colleges.

Each state can accept up to 30 IMGs each fiscal year under the program. Conrad 30 is not the only method of obtaining a visa waiver, but it has become the most popular, officials said.

States such as Texas, Florida, California, Iowa and Arizona typically fill their allotment annually, said Connie Berry, primary care office manager for the Texas Dept. of State Health Services. Berry surveys states each year about Conrad 30 utilization but does not have 2008 data.

The program has received previous extensions.

In 2008, the House passed an extension in May, but the Senate waited until October to take action. The Senate version was amended to shorten the extension from five years to six months and increase to 10 the number of IMG physicians per state allowed to work in facilities not located in underserved areas.

This year the Senate passed the House bill without amendments.

Shick said $300 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was given to the National Health Service Corps and could impact future extensions of Conrad 30. The corps provides loan repayment, salary aid and scholarships for U.S. physicians and other primary care practitioners who practice in underserved areas.

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