Senate Subcommittee Highlights Health Workforce Shortages

On May 20, the Primary Health and Retirement Security subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee held a legislative hearing entitled, “A Dire Shortage and Getting Worse: Solving the Crisis in the Health Workforce.” During this hearing, senators examined the key drivers of projected health workforce shortages and how federal policy can improve workforce supply while ensuring appropriate distribution, particularly in rural and underserved communities.

University of New England (UNE) President James D. Herbert, PhD, representing multiple health professions education programs, testified on the specific challenges facing his institution, including the UNE PA program. Dr. Herbert stated, “As financial margins have tightened and clinician workloads have increased over the past three decades, practicing clinicians in various healthcare settings have less time to devote to training students. The single most important thing we can do to increase the number of healthcare providers is to support partnerships between universities and healthcare systems to develop additional residencies, clerkships, practica, and other training opportunities.”

Beyond the issue of clinical site availability, Dr. Herbert also stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion as Congress develops legislative solutions to promote workforce development. Specifically, Dr. Herbert stated, “We must intentionally recruit more students who look like the communities we need to serve. It is well established that individuals from underrepresented groups are more likely to seek out practitioners who share their identities and backgrounds. Studies have found that minority patients who are treated by race/ethnic-concordant clinicians are more likely to use needed health services and are less likely to delay seeking care.”

In a statement for the record submitted to the subcommittee, PAEA emphasized the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the already existing clinical training site crisis, particularly in specialties projected to have acutely severe provider shortages like primary care, obstetrics and gynecology, and behavioral health. The Association also discussed structural barriers to the matriculation of underrepresented minority students throughout health professions education. To address these and other challenges, PAEA called for the subcommittee to advance key PAEA-endorsed legislation including the Rural MOMS Act, Perinatal Workforce Act, and Physician Assistant Higher Education Modernization Act as part of any comprehensive workforce package.

Throughout the hearing, the acute need for additional investments received significant attention by subcommittee leadership. “Growing up in northern Maine, I know the vital role that nurse practitioners and physician assistants in particular play in our health care system in rural areas. That is why one of my highest priorities in the Senate has always been to increase funding for workforce programs,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). 

As legislation seeking to strengthen the supply, distribution, and diversity of the health workforce is developed, PAEA’s Government Relations team will continue its vigorous advocacy on behalf of programs, faculty, and students.