Part of the skilled nursing sector’s staffing shortage could be eased with a change in U.S. immigration policies.

This was a focal point of the discussion Wednesday Senate hearing Flatlining Care: Why Immigrants Are Crucial To Bolstering Our Healthcare Workforce. 

With staffing shortages worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor crisis will grow with expected retirements, workers struggling with childcare, and others leaving the sector, American Seniors Housing Association President and CEO David Schless said in a statement submitted to the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety.

Schless said that there aren’t enough native-born workers to meet current and future demand.

“There are numerous non-immigrant visa categories for people traveling and working in the US, but none of them are suited for the caregiver, dietary aid, medical technician and other critical positions in the long-term care industry,” he explained. 

ASHA has encouraged several changes that can ease the pressure:

  • Creation of a visa category for frontline long-term care workers;
  • Improvement of the employment authorization process for migrants seeking asylum;
  • A hastening of work applications; creation of pilot programs within the existing H2-B visa category; 
  • Inclusion of long-term care workers in future allocations of unused green cards; and
  • Granting permanent legal status Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and Temporary Protected Status.

“Senior living plays a significant role in the greater healthcare system, and these workers are key to maintaining the health and well-being of the residents they serve, thereby reducing the need for more critical services or hospitalization,” Schless said.

Sarah Peterson, an attorney specializing in physician immigration at an immigration law firm in Minneapolis, advocated in her written testimony for passage of two bills, the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act and the Conrad State 30 and Physician Access Reauthorization Act.

The former would make available to nurses and physicians previously unused immigrant visas if they petition for them no more than 90 days after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The second bill would give states the ability to grant Conrad J1 visa waivers based on need, rather than putting a cap on them.

Provider advocacy organizations echoed one another in their concern for and support of the effort to ease immigrants’ path to senior care.

A spokeswoman for LeadingAge told McKnight’s Senior Living Wednesday that the association agrees with Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin’s statement that the shortage of healthcare workers in the nation is a “national emergency.”

“Numerous approaches are needed. Immigration reform must be a part of the range of solutions,” the LeadingAge spokeswoman said.

A spokeswoman from the American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living said that the groups were pleased to see Congress addressing this “critically important issue.”

“As we continue to face a historic workforce crisis, we need Congress to expand and expedite opportunities for healthcare workers who wish to live and work in the United States, especially those who are willing to care for our nation’s seniors,” the AHCA / NCAL spokeswoman said.

AHCA / NCAL led a recent coalition letter regarding immigration delays. It also spearheaded an effort this spring to provide jobs in long-term care communities to Ukrainian refugees through job training, relocation assistance and support for integrating into local communities.