Minn. Program For Immigrant Doctors Loses Funding

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A University of Minnesota program that helps immigrant doctors qualify to practice in Minnesota has fallen victim to last month’s state budget agreement.

Lawmakers eliminated funding for the $150,000 program during the last-minute negotiations, Minnesota Public Radio reported Monday.

The program has allowed three doctors from Somalia, after years of professional limbo, to begin their residency training, which is usually a difficult proposition for immigrant doctors who received their medical degrees years ago.

Dr. Jibril Elabe was in his early 30s when he fled Somalia’s civil war 11 years ago. With a medical degree and eight years of intense field experience to his credit, he hoped he would be able to continue his career in his new home.

“I knew that there was some obstacles,” said Elabe, 44. “But I never thought they would be so hard and it will take so long to overcome.”

Dr. Liban Farah discovered that his 10 years of delivering babies and treating gunshot victims in Somalia didn’t matter to Minnesota health care providers.

“Every place that you go they will ask you, when did you graduate? And I graduated a long time ago,” Farah said. “Then they will say to you, `Do you have experience in the United States?’ How can I get a United States experience if they don’t give the opportunity to practice here? So it was a difficult time for me.”

Most U.S. hospitals and clinics require physicians to complete a residency program before they will hire them. Those programs typically accept only doctors who have graduated within the last five years.

That made qualifying for a residency seemingly impossible for Farah, 45, who had graduated from medical school in 1989. He was forced to drive taxis, work as an interpreter and do other jobs to support his family.

Eventually, Farah, Elabe and some other out-of-work Somali doctors persuaded state lawmakers to help them. The 2010 Legislature gave the university $150,000 to set up an intensive, seven-month training program that would help them meet the qualifications for a U.S. residency program.

Farah, Elabe and Liban Hired, another Somali doctor, were selected for the first class, which began last December. They were instructed on how the U.S. health care system works, including insurance billing and electronic record-keeping. They also worked three-month rotations in a hospital and a clinic. They still must finish three-year residencies. Then they’re required to work for one year in an underserved Minnesota community.

Dr. Will Nicholson, a professor who helped teach the inaugural class, said Minnesota needs doctors like Elabe and Farah who are willing to treat underserved and immigrant communities.

“Many of them could be qualified to do this job with just a little bit of extra training,” Nicholson said. “You desperately need people to do this job. Why not get them out in the game? To tackle some of the health care problems Minnesota is facing we need all hands on deck.”

An estimated 200 foreign-trained doctors living in Minnesota face similar barriers to becoming practicing physicians. The university program had been their best hope for reviving their careers until the money ran out.

Nicholson said re-training foreign doctors is much more cost-effective than sending new students through medical school.

“By cutting our funding, they’ve saved a dime and lost a dollar,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be a lawmaker, but my guess is if they had the time to listen to what we did and look at the math, they probably would have done something different. It’s unfortunate that politics has to play out in these sort of last-minute, midnight kind of deals.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • betty

    Good decision, MN!

    • jordanj

      Second that!

    • winoceros

      It’s a great decision. No reason these funds couldn’t come from a private foundation.

  • MAJ

    When I originally heard about this program I thought it was good. They would be working with a population they were familiar with. Hopefully would be saving $$$$$$ as these folks wouldn’t be ending up at ER. Suppose it made too much sense and if anything is lacking now days it is “common sense.” These doctors are underutilized. Hope something can be done.

    • frozenrunner

      They will still go to the er and be charity care versus having to pay out of thei own pocket. It is the American way. See tax breaks for the wealthy, apd to corporations, lifetime benefits for serving one term in Congress. As Dan Cole once said “everybody wants something for ree”

  • Jesse V

    Thank goodness this didn’t pan out. Was this part of “Pawlentycare”? Save a buck however you can. Would have given new meaning to Vet care.

  • Completely baffled

    Here’s an idea, not sure why no one has come up with it before. Instead of the tax payer paying for the immigrant’s education/residency…why don’t these immigrant Drs pay for it themselves? If I as a white person, a citizen of the USA, want to become a Dr I have to pay for it out of my own pocket. I have to work any number of odd jobs to save up for my education, go to school during the day, work nights… Why would the taxpayer want to pay for an immigrant when they don’t pay for USA born citizens that need to do their residency? Jeez…this is the land of opportunity…not the land of suck on the teat of the taxpayer.

    • *sigh*

      The problem wasn’t that they couldn’t afford it, the problem was that there were no programs available for immigrants with medical degrees to meet the qualifications for a U.S. residency program. Did you even read the article? It says nothing about these people not being able to afford school. And you, “as a white person”, have the same opportunities as anyone else to apply for and receive federal student aid. Next time, read the article, comprehend what it is saying, and then comment.

      • frozenrunner

        If it were easy for every foriegn born doctor to come here we would flood the market. Doctors make far more mony here than in any third world country, or India. There is also the problem with the residency programs being able to attract enough candidates to their prorams. Radiology, dernatology, and emergency medicine programs get the best.

      • winoceros

        No, it says they couldn’t get into the residency because they weren’t current with their training. I’m sure you’d agree it’s important for a doctor to be trained in current medications and protocols, not to mention having training from a facility in the West where operations might be somewhat different than in Somalia.

        And if they’re driving cabs to support their families, then they do not have enough money for school. They would take out loans like everyone else.

        Case in point…a law firm’s recruiting department routinely rejects law degrees earned in other countries, even Western ones. They just don’t agree that they would have the training sufficient to be competent.

        If they want to get a law degree in the US they can start from L1.

        The fact that the U is willing to have a program like this is great, honestly. But why on earth do Completely Baffled and “sigh” have to pay for it? Having a program is not the same thing as funding it. The school could easily solicit the funds elsewhere or get the doctors to act as support persons for med students to help them with cultural competency, in exchange for the extra training.

        There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

        • GGg

          Actually, they couldn’t get into residency because they needed U.S. clinical experience. It wasn’t a matter of being current with their training. The MPR piece stated these docs did commit to serving in an underserved community for one-year after they complete they training. The whole purpose of this “training program” was just to get them the U.S. clinical experience necessary to be able to apply for residency. Now they will go on to serve the underserved and the large Somali community in Minnesota — seems like a worthwhile investment.

    • winoceros

      Absolutely correct. There is absolutely no reason one of these corporations wouldn’t want to front a paltry $150K to help these doctors become qualified. What about the Pohlads? What about Garrison Keihllor? I’m sure he’s all over himself to help underserved communities get medical care.

      Why is it up to taxpayers to help others get qualified? When they came to Minnesota, they were qualified to do residencies…why didn’t they? Why wait until they were no longer desirable to employers, driving cabs?

      I could care if we get immigrant doctors here. There is no need to be spending money like the do in lots of other countries paying foreign doctors and nurses to come in. I know these are more likely immigrants fleeing from the jihadis of Somalia. I feel desparately for them. But why on earth do we have to mourn if the University doesn’t get the funding from the taxpayer versus another patron?

      Let the U use some of their $1.3 billion endowment to fund the program though the UM Medical Foundation? This seems like a worthy cause.

      I am disappointed at previous posters and their politics of entitlement and false charity.

      • GGg

        Again, you don’t have your facts straight. They couldn’t apply for residency without clinical experience in the U.S., which they couldn’t get without a program like this.

        • winoceros

          You are incorrect that I don’t have my facts straight, but you are correct that they cannot apply for a residency without this program.

          It does not say that they could not get into a residency because they “needed U.S. clinical experience.” It says:

          “Most U.S. hospitals and clinics require physicians to complete a residency program before they will hire them. Those programs typically accept only doctors who have graduated within the last five years.”

          That seems like a reasonable stipulation, as I think you do agree, that they should be current enough with their training to participate in a residency, which is a position of serious responsibility. The program mentioned is a clever way to condense the “upgrade” into a short period of time so these professionals can qualify for residency programs.

          The stipulation of one year’s work in an underserved community was no doubt added by those in the legislature who gave the money to the UM for the program, trying to see that the taxpayers got something useful for their money, and that is a nice exchange. However, that money will no longer be given, so that stipulation will no longer be necessary. Who would enforce it? The U of M?

          The other disturbing feature about your comments is the assumption that these doctors would immediately go to serve primarily Somali-immigrant populations as part of their one-year repayment. It doesn’t say anywhere in the article at all that this was a goal of these doctors. It smacks of a little bit of “separate but equal” that we should want to pay Somali-born doctors to get up to speed so they can go serve those Somali-born populations over there where those people live. Maybe they just want to practice in Minnetonka. So what?

          I am not saying it isn’t a good idea that that U of M should create a training and education program for foreign-born doctors who can’t qualify for residencies. It would be a crying shame to lose the good talents of physicians who would be an asset to our community. But there any number of Foundations, not to mention the U’s own Medical Foundation who could fund the, frankly, paltry sum of $150K to benefit the community.

          There is zero reason for this to be a tax-payer funded endeavor. A private donor could easily base the program donation on a contract requiring the same one year in an underserved community.

          You might be surprised to know that the Somali immigrant community may have challenges, especially first gen and inflexible second gen patients, but access to doctors and medical professionals is not one of them.

          So I’m sorry to sound harsh, but I’m not actually disagreeing with you. I just want you to consider why the taxpayer should have to pay for it. Why do they not just change the rules for medical professional student loans so these folks can qualify for loans for this training. It seems nominal, and they could have a deferment if they put in one year in an underserved community, but it’s not a requirement.

          Why exactly have you decided where these doctors are going to practice, and why do you assume it is anyone’s responsibility to finance this training other than the doctors themselves?

  • UMN alum

    It might be interesting to note that the physicians that graduated from this program have committed to working for one-year in an underserved community in Minnesota — and very likely will be working in clinics/hospitals that serve Somali-speaking populations. The need for doctors in our underserved and rural communities is great. Drs. Farah, Elabe, and Hired are helping to fill that need.

    • winoceros

      Excellent, but why taxpayer dollars? Will Somalis somehow not be treated medically in backwater Minneapolis because their uptrain money came from a private source, rather than a tax grab?

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