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How can we fix our health worker shortage? Start with tackling student debt

New legislation by Durbin, Rubio takes aim at disparities exacerbated by the pandemic

The Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act would bolster health worker surge capacity to be prepared for health emergencies, Durbin and Rubio write.
The Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act would bolster health worker surge capacity to be prepared for health emergencies, Durbin and Rubio write. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many American communities faced the harsh reality of fewer doctors, nurses, behavioral health providers and dentists, and inadequate access to them. Our nation risks a shortage of up to 120,000 doctors within the next decade and a shortfall of hundreds of thousands of nurses for each of the next several years, current projections show.

Of course, the pandemic has dramatically exacerbated the situation. In recent months, we’ve seen medical students graduating early to enter the field and clinicians called out of retirement or across state lines to provide surge capacity. Worse yet, many states experiencing the greatest spikes in COVID-19 cases are also bracing for the strains of a hurricane season. Texas, Hawaii and Florida have already had to face this truth. We must do something to address these alarming shortages across the country.

The problem starts with medical education in America. We take our most promising students, put them through years of rigorous education and training, and license them on one condition: student loan debt that can average more than $200,000. The burden of paying off these loans steers some of our brightest minds into higher-paying specialties or communities that are more affluent. This leaves many areas underserved and vulnerable to the challenges we now face today.

Doctor shortages in underserved communities also highlight one of the reasons why we see racial disparities in health care outcomes. The coronavirus has magnified these alarming disparities for Americans of color, who are three times more likely to get sick and die from COVID-19 than white patients.

It is clear that today’s public health crisis has exposed major gaps in our health care infrastructure, and we must meet this challenge head-on.

For these reasons, we have introduced the Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act. This legislation would address these health workforce shortages and medical disparities, as well as bolster health worker surge capacity to be prepared and respond to health emergencies, such as pandemics or natural disasters.

Our bill would make a historic investment to restore our pipeline of health professionals. For example, it would provide scholarship and loan repayment funding through the National Health Service Corps and Nurse Corps programs for tens of thousands of clinicians who commit to serve in urban and rural communities facing a shortage of providers.

In order to narrow health disparities, our bill would also emphasize recruitment from populations that are historically underrepresented in health care. Lastly, the bill would enhance our health emergency preparedness by providing loan repayment for clinicians who serve in a reserve capacity—akin to the National Guard—with the National Disaster Medical System, our nation’s primary mechanism of deploying health workers from the private practice to disaster locations.

Our bill would give a shot in the arm to the country’s immediate health care response while also laying the foundation to prepare for potential additional waves of COVID-19 infection, or perhaps a future pandemic or national event.

To our Senate colleagues: Let’s make a commitment to aspiring health professionals and recognize the heroic sacrifices our current health care workers are making on the frontlines of this pandemic in urban and rural communities alike.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin is a Democrat representing the state of Illinois.

Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican representing the state of Florida.

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