Let health care workers treat patients in any state

Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., recently introduced legislation that would allow licensed medical professionals to provide treatment in any state through the remainder of the pandemic.

That’s a good idea. But its existence sheds light on a bigger problem within our health care system. Even under normal circumstances, doctors’ ability to provide care often stops at the state border. That prevents medical professionals from moving where their skills may be in higher demand — or delivering care remotely to patients in other parts of the country.

Consequently, our leaders should roll back restrictive regulations on where people can practice medicine — not just for the duration of the pandemic but indefinitely.

To acquire a license, a doctor must graduate from an accredited medical school, complete a medical residency and pass a series of tests. Physicians who apply must provide an array of documents, including exam scores, references and any past licenses.

Of course, not all doctors may want to move. And many specialists are best suited to urban areas or places with academic medical centers, where they’ll have the opportunity to treat the greatest number of patients. But telehealth technologies could bring them to rural areas. A heart disease patient in rural West Virginia, for example, could visit a local clinic and have a specialist in Pittsburgh check his vital signs and imaging results remotely.

Relaxing state “scope of practice” rules could also increase the supply of care by freeing up doctors to focus on more complicated cases — including those that might be out of state.

These rules limit what nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other “non-doctors” can do for patients. Many states prevent clinicians from prescribing medications and making diagnoses without supervision from a physician — even if they’re perfectly capable of doing so independently. Florida, Texas and California — the three most populous states in the nation — have particularly stringent limitations in place.

UnitedHealth Group, an insurance company, estimates that expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners could decrease the number of people without a primary care provider nationwide from 44 million to 13 million.

Millions of Americans need access to health care. Thousands of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals stand ready to deliver it — if government officials will let them.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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