What if health care workers come, but cannot practice?

According to several news reports, more than 90,000 health care professionals have traveled to New York to help deal with Gotham’s overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients. Tragically, the vast majority of these volunteers — all but 1,000 — reportedly are sitting idle while state officials work to process their applications to practice.

This scenario is playing out in a state that actually has enacted a handful of occupational licensing reforms that would allow out-of-state medical professionals to get to work faster. If these volunteers had descended on Florida or California, states that have not touched occupational licensing standards for medical professionals, the numbers would be even worse.

In a recently published paper and in a Morning Consult column, Ed Timmons, director of the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at Saint Francis University, and research analysts Ethan Bayne and Conor Norris explained how state licensing laws “reduce the interstate mobility of workers.” States, for example, generally require nonresident medical professionals “to apply, pass exams, and pay fees in order to begin practicing in their new home.” These “costs and delays, which can be as long as several months, reduce the interstate mobility of licensed workers by 36 percent compared to similar unlicensed workers.”

Those delays are frustrating under normal circumstances, but “in a public health emergency” they “substantially reduce the ability of workers to move to the areas that need additional care quickly.”

Timmons, Bayne, and Norris urge states to “consider a range of temporary measures” that would reduce the barriers for entry for medical professionals seeking to volunteer their services in states in which they do not reside. For example, states could grant temporary licenses to out-of-state personnel; waive or modify licensing requirements; allow inactive or retired licensees to practice; or offer blanket expansion of medical scope of practice. Another option that would help attract more individuals to help is to waive fees for personnel offering their aid.

There is precedent. Maryland, for example, has enacted reforms that grant all health care professionals the authority to work beyond their current scope of practice. As noted above, New York has reformed some of its licensing standards, but only for “select licensed health professionals,” Timmons, Bayne, and Norris explain in the paper that was published by the Mercatus Center at George Washington University.

Without these reforms, the lines of idle health care workers could be even longer, depending on where the next hot spot erupts.

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