Immigration reform, healthcare top agenda at Indian-origin physicians meet on Capitol Hill

Give best and brightest students educated in the US “a green card along with their diploma”, says Congressman Ami Bera

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, May 4, 2019 – Immigration reform and healthcare topped the agenda at the 2019 Legislative Day meet hosted by the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill. Both are hot button issues, heading the national debate and continuing to pose a challenge for US lawmakers back to work after the traditional two-week Easter recess.

Addressing the gathering of Indian-American physicians, aspiring doctors as well as other professionals in the healthcare field, California Congressman Ami Bera said “it is short-sighted and ridiculous for the United States” to not retain “the best and brightest” who are educated here. “We should just be giving them a green card along with their diploma”, he declared to loud applause by the audience. Given that “40 percent of all start-ups are by immigrants, why wouldn’t we want to continue that?”, he asked incredulously.

A former Democratic co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, Bera is among four Indian-American lawmakers in the House of Representatives, regarded as the dean for serving the longest on the Hill. Responding to a question on bilateral trade, he acknowledged that “some of the trade tariffs and the barriers” by the Trump administration have had the Modi government “pretty frustrated”. Noting that “there are some retaliatory trade barriers being thrown up on the Indian side”, he disclosed, “We (in Congress) are in the process of sending a letter to the (Trump) administration on the steel tariffs, to rescind them”.

“As a Democrat, I support open and fair trade”, he said. “I think we are moving in the wrong direction. Our advice to the Indians: keep a low profile; don’t attract the president’s ire. He is focused on China right now”.

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Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) addressing the 2019 Legislative Day meet hosted by the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill. Seen at left is AAPI legislative co-chair Dr. Sampat Shivangi, and at right is AAPI president Dr. Naresh Parikh

Looking across the room in the Rayburn Building, he said, “AAPI members can play an important role in strengthening the US-India relationship” which, he noted, is thriving on the defense and strategic sides. “Once the election is over in India, we will be introducing legislation to elevate and codify the US-India relationship”, he revealed.

Bera spoke of building stronger ties between the Jewish and Indian diasporas here pointing to shared values such as an entrepreneurial spirit and the fact that there are many doctors in both communities. It is “important to build a trilateral relationship between US, India and Israel”, he said drawing cheers from the audience.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who is running for the White House in 2020 and according to AAPI Data is the favorite Democratic presidential hopeful of Indian-Americans was a celebrity guest at the AAPI event, mobbed from the minute she entered. She is the first Hindu elected to Congress and many in the community have embraced her as one of their own. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who took to the podium following her address quipped, “President Gabbard has taken half the crowd with her”.

Currently in campaign mode, Gabbard spoke of “traveling around the country and hearing from people about what is on the top of their minds. Everywhere I go, it is healthcare”, she said emphasizing, “healthcare is the number one issue that people are most concerned with”.

The Hawaii Democrat lamented, “Too rarely are we bringing up the conversation about preventive healthcare – looking at this in a holistic way about how we can make sure that we are having healthy people rather than just caring for sick people”. In this regard, she commended AAPI for its “leadership and great contributions to continuing to bring this conversation to the forefront” so lawmakers can make better informed decisions about improving the delivery of healthcare in the US.

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“I think why you gathering here every year is so important is because we recognize both in our personal lives, in your work every day and here in Washington, that our healthcare system is still broken”, she told the gathering. “We still have far too many people in this country who are uninsured, who are not able to get the care they need when they need it, and those who are under-insured: who may have some form of coverage but because of high deductibles or high premiums, they are ultimately not able to get the care they need when they need it”. Healthcare emergencies are forcing some people into homelessness, she noted.

Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla warmly congratulated AAPI office-bearers – president Dr. Naresh Parikh, legislative chairman Dr. Vinod Shah, legislative co-chair Dr. Sampat Shivangi – for the successful event on the Hill which, he said, saw such an “illustrious turnout” of members of Congress. Noting that he has been serving in his current position for about three-and-a-half months now, the envoy said, “well before I came here, the reputation, influence, outreach of AAPI has clearly preceded today’s formal engagement”. AAPI is the largest ethnic organization of physicians in the US representing over 100,000 doctors of Indian origin.

Throughout his address, Shringla lavished accolades on the “highly successful” Indian-American community and the great contributions it has made to the US economy and society.

“At the embassy, we very greatly value the support that we get from the community of Indian origin in the United States”, he told members of the audience. “Your endeavor to bring your country of origin (India) and country of citizenship (US) closer together is one that we greatly appreciate, cherish and value”.

Referring to the green card backlog, he drew attention to the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019 (H.R. 1044) that seeks to address the issue. “Hopefully, we will see something with this to our satisfaction”, he said emphasizing, “The issue of the interest of the Indian community is high on our agenda”.

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Noting that the US has “a huge workforce shortage, particularly with regard to primary care”, Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., stressed the importance of increasing residency slots and the number of J-1 visas allotted. “I would like to see more Americans educated here, but the reality is that we are going to have to take more people from abroad just because of the numbers”, he said adding, “We should be lifting the cap on the H-1B (visa).

The New Jersey Democrat who co-founded the House India Caucus in 1993 spoke about the “huge number of Indian-Americans” who reside in the 6th congressional district which he represents. Citing a statistic, he noted that in 2017, there were over 353,000 Indian-Americans living in New Jersey (the third highest figure in the country), of which 120,000 (34 percent) live in his district.

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Congressman Frank Pallone Jr., (D-NJ) addressing the 2019 Legislative Day meet hosted by the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill. He is flanked by AAPI office-bearers, from left to right: Dr. Sampat Shivangi; Dr. Naresh Parikh; and Dr. Vinod Shah

Regarding upcoming bills, Pallone mentioned an Affordable Care Act (ACA) stabilization package while lambasting President Trump and the Republicans for trying to repeal the ACA and when they didn’t succeed, sabotaging it mostly through waivers that allow insurance companies to bar people with pre-existing health conditions. He called the GOP tax bill “another disaster” that eliminated the individual mandate penalty for not having health insurance.

“We have done a series of bills that will go to the House Floor in the next month or so that try to reverse all that — annul the waivers, bring more competition into the market, and make sure that the subsidies are more generous”, he said.

Regarding rehabilitating the ACA and bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer who schedules bills for the House Floor sought the advice and counsel of AAPI members on both these key issues saying, “because of your intellect and involvement in the community and policies of our country, you have become very important influencers of policy”.

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House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (fifth from left) is flanked by leaders of the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill

Stressing the need for comprehensive immigration reform, the powerful lawmaker said, “We need to celebrate the diversity in our country. It is our strength because we bring the best from so many other areas of the world”.

GOP congressman Phil Roe of Tennessee underscored the “huge shortage” of physicians in the US. “The reason we have to get immigration reform correct is because we are going to be short of about 120,000 physicians by 2032 which is not that far away”, he said. Roe spoke in favor of passing the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, and removing the per country caps on employment-based visas mentioning India in this regard.

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Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) addressing the 2019 Legislative Day meet hosted by the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill. Second from left is AAPI president Dr. Naresh Parikh and third from right is AAPI legislative chairman Dr. Vinod Shah

Republican lawmaker Andy Barr of Kentucky noted that the physician shortage is particularly acute in rural America. “It is estimated by the American Association of Medical Colleges that by the year 2032, if nothing changes, we will face in this country a shortage of physicians in excess of 120,000″, he said which poses a crisis in low-income and rural communities when it comes to access to healthcare.

“There are a couple of factors that are contributing to that shortage that we as policy makers in Washington need to continue to work on to fix”, Barr said mentioning the residency caps which limits the number of new physicians who are allowed to practice in the US. “We have got to come together on high-skilled immigration reform, the H-1B, H-4 issue. The arbitrary per country cap on green cards has got to be changed”, he emphasized.

“One thing that we are blessed with in Kentucky is a number of foreign-born physicians that do serve our rural communities and we need more of that”, he said noting that many Indian-American physicians are serving in both the urban and rural areas of the state.

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Congressman Andy Barr (R-KY) addressing the 2019 Legislative Day meet hosted by the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill. Seen at left is AAPI legislative co-chair Dr. Sampat Shivangi, and at right is AAPI president Dr. Naresh Parikh

Dr. Parikh pointed out that “AAPI has been seeking to collectively shape the best health care for the people of the US with the physician at the helm caring for the medically under-served as we have done for several decades when physicians of Indian origin came to the US in large numbers”. It is noteworthy that Indian-Americans constitute some one percent of the country’s population, but they account for nine percent of its physicians. One out of every seven doctors in the US is of Indian descent, providing medical care to over 40 million people.

Among other members of congress who addressed the AAPI event were Joe Wilson (Republican – South Carolina), Raja Krishnamoorthi (Democrat-Illinois), John Sarbanes (Democrat – Maryland), and freshman lawmakers Andy Levin (Democrat-Michigan), Michael Guest (Republican-Mississippi) and Nicholas Van Campen Taylor (Republican-Texas).

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Levin, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declared, “I don’t think there is anything more important for the future of the world than the US-India relationship”, eliciting much applause from the audience.

Noting that the US has issues with China and Russia, the lawmaker said, “If you want to look ahead, 20 or 30 years, at the transformation we need to find in helping people come up to a decent standard of living while greening our planet, it’s more the relationship between the United States and India making this happen”.

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Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI) addressing the 2019 Legislative Day meet hosted by the Association of American Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) on Capitol Hill. At left is AAPI legislative co-chair Dr. Sampat Shivangi, and at right is AAPI president Dr. Naresh Parikh

Speaking about his first trip to India in 1978 when he was fresh out of high school, Levin said, “India is very important to me” and that visit “really changed my life”.

He emphasized the importance of the Indian-American community in Michigan’s 9th congressional district which he represents. “The Indian physicians in our area play a huge role in healthcare”, he said.

Saluting the AAPI leadership for its advocacy, Sarbanes affirmed, “It’s very important here in Washington to hear from the voices of the Indian-American community because I don’t think there is any community that rivals you in terms of success when it comes to the medical profession. This is a community I know that is always thinking of ways to try to give back to the broader society here in the United States”, he said.

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Immigration reform, healthcare top agenda at AAPI meet on Capitol Hill

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