Durbin Introduces Legislation to Stem the "Brain Drain" of Health Care Workers from World's Poorest Nations

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Senate Majority Dick Durbin (D-IL) today introduced the Global Healthcare Cooperation Act¸ a bill designed to stem the “brain drain” of skilled healthcare workers who emigrate from developing countries to the United States. The bill will also bolster the ranks of healthcare workers serving in developing countries by enabling American legal permanent residents to assist with overseas public health emergencies.

“The brain drain of talented health care workers has reached crisis levels around the world – particularly in Africa,” Durbin said. “We can’t stand by and watch a flood of doctors and nurses leave for the West without ensuring they’ve appropriately fulfilled the commitments they have made to their home country. And we have to fix our immigration laws to ensure that legal permanent residents can temporarily return home to practice medicine during a time of great need. I hope my colleagues will join me in ensuring these provisions become the law of the land.”

While many nations are currently experiencing shortages of healthcare personnel, the lack of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers in the world’s poorest nations – especially in Africa – is an urgent crisis. According to the World Health Organization, Africa loses 20,000 health professionals a year as part of this brain drain.  In Ethiopia, for example, there are only 1,806 doctors serving a population of 80 million. By comparison, there are 17,507 doctors in Cook County, Illinois – population 5.2 million – and nearly 6,000 doctors in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.

The shortage of healthcare personnel is considered the single biggest obstacle to fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Healthcare worker shortages are particularly devastating when nations are confronted with natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, such as the recent Haitian earthquake. 

The Global Healthcare Cooperation Act would take two steps to address these challenges.  The bill would allow a healthcare worker who is a legal permanent resident in the U.S. to temporarily provide healthcare services in a country that is underdeveloped or that has suffered a disaster or public health emergency without jeopardizing his or her immigration status in the United States. 

Specifically, the bill would allow legal permanent resident healthcare workers to work in qualifying countries for up to 36 months without running afoul of the continuous residency requirement for naturalization.  This provision will allow immigrants in our country to lend their skills to overseas disaster relief and public health crises while still pursuing their dream of American citizenship.

The second part of this legislation would require a foreigner who is petitioning to work in the U.S. as a healthcare worker to attest that he or she has satisfied any outstanding obligation to his or her home country before being granted legal status in the U.S.

In exchange for financial support for their education or training, some foreign doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers have signed voluntary bonds or made promises to their governments to remain in their home countries or to return from their studies abroad and work in the healthcare profession.  The goal of this provision is to ensure that foreign countries do not invest money in healthcare workers who then renege on commitments to work in their country without in some way satisfying their commitment.

The provisions in this legislation have previously passed the Senate twice, as part of the 2006 immigration reform bill and the 2007 Labor-HHS appropriations bill, but have not yet become law.