Mohave Valley Daily News
BULLHEAD CITY — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wasn’t a spectator at Saturday’s meeting of the Mohave Health Coalition. She was an active participant.
Members of the group formed to address health care needs in the county met with the Arizona Democrat at Anderson Auto Group Fieldhouse and exchanged ideas with a woman who vowed to be an advocate for the coalition and her constituency.
“You’ve given me a lot of work to do,” Sinema said after getting a lengthy “homework assignment” from the coalition following a PowerPoint presentation by founder and CEO Dr. Waheed Zehri. She said she pursued the job as senator to do just that — work for the people who trusted her enough to put her in office.
“They gave me a priority list,” she said following the 45-minute coalition meeting. “That’s really important to me.”
She said members of her staff had been in contact with the coalition prior to Saturday’s meeting, so many of the concerns already had been shared. Those concerns are similar to issues facing many rural communities: recruiting and retaining health care professionals, including physicians, nurses, technicians and specialists; providing continuing education for health care professionals; serving the veteran population; battling the opioid crisis; and meeting the needs of a growing population of people seeking mental health services.
“I understand where they are coming from,” she said. “It was important hearing it first-hand.”
She also said it was important to meet the cross-section of coalition members, many of whom are involved in the health-care industry.
“It’s important to build personal relationships,” she said.
After Zehri outlined the purpose and structure of the coalition and raised major concerns that led to its formation earlier this year, several coalition members addressed Sinema with specific issues. One of the core concerns is a lack of mental health professionals in the area.
Sinema had no immediate solutions, though she did have some suggestions.
She said forming a round table of mental health professionals already working in the area might help coordinate services and provide an opportunity for brainstorming that could lead to other solutions.
“We have no one to have that conversation with,” said Chaz Martinez, a coalition member from Talas Harbor, a geriatric behavioral health hospital in Bullhead City. “We don’t have enough health professionals. Recruitment and retention are critical.”
Zehri said one solution to address recruitment would be changes to the current J-1 visa program, a program through which foreign-trained and certified medical professionals can enter the United States. He said the process — which he used in 1995 — currently takes too long and requires too much bureaucracy for small, rural hospitals to use extensively to address immediate vacancies. A change in the waiver system could speed the process for physicians; currently, the program does not apply for most specialists, Zehri said.
“We have a lack of physicians and specialists,” Zehri said. “A J-1 waiver for specialists would be helpful.”
The J-1 program provides up to a three-year stay in the United States for physicians — and other professions covered by it and similar exchange visitor programs. A waiver could allow a path for citizenship.
Sinema said that applying the waiver to J-1 visas — and other visa programs — is caught up in the immigration fight in Washington. She said she doesn’t see the restrictions easing any time soon.
“It’s a really outstanding opportunity,” said Michael Stenger, CEO of Western Arizona Regional Medical Center, adding that hospitals throughout the country have used the J-1 program to attract doctors.
Sinema nodded in agreement but again said a change was not likely.
“It’s politically pretty challenging right now,” she said, suggesting that the Senate lacked to appetite for such a battle.
The coalition’s priority list also included funding for a residency program at area hospitals and money for modern equipment.
“We’re 20 to 30 years behind” some areas, Zehri said.
Sinema suggested coalition representatives contact a member of her staff for help identifying potential grants available, seeking a solution that wouldn’t require legislative action at the federal level.
“We can help propose grants for you,” she said. “And we can provide support for those grants.”
Before the coalition meeting, Sinema held a short meet-and-greet with elected officials from the area, including Bullhead City Mayor Tom Brady, Lake Havasu City Mayor Cal Sheehy and Kingman Mayor Jen Miles.
She said she and her office were offering “what we can do to be helpful.”
She again touched on the grant process as being important for the three incorporated cities and the county as a whole.
“I’m tired of Arizona being a donor state,” she said. “We’re trying to get (taxpayer money) back into the state instead of always sending it out.”
Zehri said Sinema’s visit shows how far the fledgling coalition has come in a short time.
“We started one month ago,” he said, “and now we have a U.S. senator with us.”