SPRINGFIELD — Delays in being able to get a medical license might discourage new doctors from seeking residency training in Illinois hospitals, warn representatives of various medical groups.
They agree the problem is severe and is best resolved before an important Feb. 20 deadline. But they disagree on the solution.
Because of a recent 69 percent staff reduction in the state office that issues medical licenses, new applications will take six months or longer to process, said Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the parent agency, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
That’s definitely not fast enough for new doctors to begin their residency training on time, said Dr. Karen Broquet, associate dean for graduate medical education at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, located in Springfield.
"It’s not really possible to overstate how monumentally disruptive this would be, if they don’t get this straightened out," said Broquet, who is in charge of the school’s residency program.
The timing of this controversy is particularly troublesome, Broquet explained.
By Feb. 20, medical students throughout the world must have submitted their preference list for hospital residencies available throughout the United States.
A computerized National Residency Matching Program, funded by fees paid by participating hospitals, "matches" the students with the residency programs.
Results are announced in mid-March. Students then begin work to get their state’s license to practice. Without it, they cannot begin their residencies, which typically start July 1.
Broquet said the current licensing delay raises two concerns.
First, medical students concerned about the licensing delay might avoid placing Illinois residencies on their Feb. 20 preference list.
Second, if the agency staffing has not been increased by mid-March, new doctors might not be able to get licensed by the time their residency is supposed to start.
Hofer said that last spring, Illinois’ medical licensing unit had four staff members, working overtime, and temporary workers to process the influx of medical license applications from the 2,500 to 2,800 new doctors arriving for Illinois residency training.
"Even in a good year," Broquet said, "it’s a crush."
But this year, Hofer said, the medical unit staff, which also investigates suspected misconduct by doctors, was reduced from 26 employees to eight, only one of whom handles license processing.
By law, Hofer said, the medical unit is funded entirely by medical licensing fees and penalties and fines paid by disciplined doctors. The staffing was cut this January because the unit was close to spending three-years-worth of fee revenue within 18 months.
Bills have been introduced in the legislature to give the medical unit some supplemental state funds and to raise licensing fees.
Two of the bills, supported by the Illinois State Medical Society, would transfer $9.6 million from general state funds and raise medical licensing fees by 67 percent, from $100 annually to $167. The two proposals, however, have not begun moving through the legislature.
Another proposal has been endorsed by a House committee, but the full House doesn’t meet again until Feb. 19, just a day before students submit their preference lists.
The proposal, which would lend the agency some supplemental state funds, would raise licensing fees by 150 percent, from $100 annually to $250.
While the agency and the Illinois State Medical Society disagree on how much the license fees should be raised, both agree licensing delays could scare away medical residents and indirectly hurt patient care.
"If I were getting out of medical school with $100,000 is debt, I’d think long and hard about whether I’d apply to be a resident in Illinois and not know whether I could start by July 1," Hofer said.
If residents were not able to start on time, the essential patient care they help provide would be interrupted and attending physicians would have to handle the additional burden, said Dr. William Werner, president of the Illinois State Medical Society.
Broquet said even though "resident trainees can’t walk in and take care of patients by themselves and everything that they do is supervised," training programs are set up so that one individual attending physician "can supervise the care of more patients than if he were just there by himself."
"Training programs really deliver a huge amount of care throughout the state," Broquet said, often at safety-net hospitals for underserved populations.
Danny Chun, spokesman for the Illinois Hospital Association, said "this crisis has to be addressed as quickly as possible" because of the Feb. 20 "match" deadline.
Chun said the state "needs to send a strong signal that Illinois is open for business" and that it wants medical students to list Illinois residencies.
Because of this urgency, Chun said, the hospital association supports the proposal that already has cleared a House committee.
On behalf of her program, Broquet said if doctors doing their residency training through SIU have to start their residency late because they were waiting on getting a license, "we will get them trained. They are not going to be punished."
But she said she is worried that some students "just don’t want to take the chance."
"Everyone within the SIU community is very concerned about this," Broquet said. "I just sure hope they get this straightened out."
The proposals supported by the Illinois State Medical Society are House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 1494. The proposal that received a favorable vote from a House committee and that the Illinois Hospital Association has supported in House Bill 193.