Georgia immigration regulation amazes medical doctors and nurses

Hundreds of health workers in Georgia are losing their license to practice medicine over an issue created in the state by a new immigration law.

The law requires everyone – regardless of where they were born – to prove their citizenship or legal residence in order to renew their work permit.

Because there are too few government employees to handle the extra paperwork, licenses for doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health professionals will expire.

State Department’s Lisa Durden says renewing a license used to be a straightforward process and most applications have flown through. Now they are crawling.

The passage of the law coincided with budget cuts that cut office staff by 40 percent.

Deputy Secretary of State Kelly Farr of Georgia said 600 nurses alone fell through the cracks. “There’s nothing more frustrating than getting that call from the desperate nurse who knows they’re slowing down because we literally don’t have enough people to hit the approve button,” Farr said.

While the Foreign Minister is responsible for approving nurses, pharmacists and veterinarians, Georgia’s Medical Board is responsible for doctors, medical assistants and even acupuncturists. It’s the same story.

Director LaSharn Hughes said she sent out 41,000 notification letters on Thursday. “And by Monday we had burned a fax machine,” said Hughes. “We didn’t have the staff. We didn’t have the equipment.”

Phones go unanswered. Paperwork piles up. And processing delays, coupled with confusion about the new rules, mean many licenses have expired.

Hughes estimates that about 1,300 doctors and other medical professionals have lost their ability to work. Some did not submit the required documents. Others are stuck in the backlog of applications that have not yet been processed.

Donald Palmisano Jr., executive director of the Medical Association of Georgia, says the law fixes a problem that never existed – at least not among doctors. “We don’t know of any undocumented immigrants who are doctors,” said Palmisano.

Even DA King, an outspoken activist and critic of illegal immigration who helped write the law, agrees. King says the law protects Georgia jobs, but even he believes some pieces of the law need to be corrected. A bill addressing some of the law’s shortcomings died in the last legislative term.

“I’m not only outraged, I’m genuinely disappointed and confused that our repair legislation was not allowed to vote,” says King.

Lawmakers did not respond to interview requests. Neither did Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.

For now, state licensing will rifle through the mail with copies of passports and birth certificates and then compare them to a list of acceptable documents.

But that ends the review, confirm Kelly Farr and Lisa Durden from the State Department. The law says nothing about whether the documents are genuine. “We really have no way of doing that,” says Durden.

State officials say the new document requirements did not reveal any undocumented immigrants.

Instead, officials hope the process itself can illegally prevent people in the country from obtaining licenses in the first place.

This story is part of a partnership with NPR, WABE, and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2012 WABE 90.1