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Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, and a Republican House colleague from North Carolina, Mark Meadows, introduced a bill Thursday that would extend visas for U.S.-educated foreign doctors to ease a shortage that's affecting care in veterans hospitals, especially in rural areas.

The bill, named the Doctors Helping Heroes Act, attempts to help fix a widespread problem in the Veterans Administration health care system. Audits have revealed a high percentage of veterans in multiple states who have to wait 30 days or more for appointments with the VA.

"This is one of many steps we need to take to make sure our heroes get the health care they deserve," said Bera, a doctor who was elected to Congress in 2012.

The long wait times, and the agency's attempts to cover them up, stoked a bipartisan firestorm in Washington and forced the resignation last month of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

The bill brings together two freshmen lawmakers from opposite parties. It also addresses another issue where it's been more difficult to find agreement: immigration.

Bera, the only member of Congress of Indian descent, often talks about making it easier for foreign-born scholars in science, technology and medicine to stay in the country after they've finished school.

Current law requires foreign-born physicians to return to their home country for two years after their visas expire before they can apply to return to the U.S. Under the Bera-Meadows bill, the physicians would be able to stay up to three years longer if they agree to practice in medically underserved areas.

"Along with helping rural communities in Western North Carolina," Meadows said, "this legislation will give more of our brave veterans access to quality care from talented doctors."

PHOTO: U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, attends the California State Society's inaugural luncheon on Jan. 19, 2013, in Washington, D.C. McClatchy Tribune/Tish Wells



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