Newswise — ATLANTA – The decision by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to suspend premium processing of H-1B visas for doctors, specialists, and other medical professionals poses an immediate and dangerous threat to chronically ill patients living in rural and underserved communities throughout the United States, warned the American College of Rheumatolgy (ACR) today in a letter to the Trump Administration.

The ACR urged the Administration to exempt international physicians from the suspension of premium processing for H-1B visas, expressing concerns that the processing delays will prevent patients in rural and underserved communities from accessing timely, specialized healthcare services to manage chronic and complex conditions.

“Rheumatologists and other rheumatology health professionals provide ongoing care for patients with complex chronic and acute conditions that require specialized expertise. We serve patients with serious conditions that can be difficult to diagnose and treat, including rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and other debilitating diseases,” the letter states. “Early and appropriate treatment of these especially vulnerable patients by rheumatologists can prevent or slow disease progression and decrease the likelihood of long-term disability and the significant costs associated with disability. However, recent workforce studies indicate a growing scarcity of rheumatologists, particularly in more rural and less populated portions of our nation. The temporary suspension of the H-1B premium processing option is likely to exacerbate the substantial access problems men, women, and children with rheumatic diseases are already facing across this country.”

According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), arthritis prevalence is at a historic high, with one in four American adults now living with doctor-diagnosed arthritis. Increasing rates of arthritis, coupled with a dearth of new training positions for new doctors entering the rheumatology subspecialty, has led to severe doctor shortages for rheumatologic care in the United States. In fact, a 2015 study of the rheumatology workforce projects that demand for adult arthritis care will exceed supply by 138 percent in 2030.

“Hospitals and medical practices across the country that already suffer from acute staffing shortages will have even greater difficulty obtaining medical residents and fellows if they are prevented from using premium processing to hire new residents in time for the beginning of their programs in July,” the letter stated. “The lack of premium processing also impacts medical practices and hospitals seeking to extend the status of their current doctor/medical professional staff. The effect of this suspension will be most profound for university and teaching hospitals, as well as hospitals located in rural and other underserved areas of the United States.”

“A six-month suspension of premium processing will impact virtually all the medical professionals applying to work in underserved areas of our nation, with severe impacts felt as soon as this July,” the letter concluded.

The ACR is a global medical society that serves more than 9,500 rheumatologists, rheumatology health professionals, and scientists worldwide. The ACR supports open interchange among clinicians, scientists, and students around the world for the purposes of advancing education, training, scientific work, and the provision of quality healthcare.

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The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) is the nation's leading advocacy organization for the rheumatology care community, representing more than 9,500 rheumatologists and rheumatology health professionals. As an ethically driven, professional membership organization committed to improving healthcare for Americans living with rheumatic diseases, the ACR advocates for high-quality, high-value policies and reforms that will ensure safe, effective, affordable and accessible rheumatology care.