ST. PAUL, Minn. — 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 were 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 past 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 are 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.”