Enslaved Foreign Doctors in the Nevada Outback


A Reno pediatrician has told state lawmakers that a federal program designed to bring physicians to underserved areas of Nevada has resulted in "indentured servitude" for some of the foreign doctors.

Frank Mullen, reporting for the Reno Gazette Journal on Tuesday, writes that:

From 2001 until August 2006, Dr. Shaji Mathew was part of the J-1 program, in which Nevada doctors sponsor physicians from other nations to work in rural areas and other parts of the state where doctors are needed. The employment contracts generally last about three years, and doctors may then apply for citizenship.
Mathew told a legislative committee last month that his Las Vegas sponsor financially cheated him and threatened him with deportation if he refused to extend his employment agreement and cosign a loan to finance the Reno clinic where he worked.

The J-1 program is designed to bring doctors to medically underserved areas of the country. But some doctors say the system is largely unregulated and leaves doctors vulnerable to being overworked, underpaid and subject to threats against their work visas. The Nevada Health Division and state lawmakers are investigating the allegations, state officials said.

Mathew worked about five years for the Nevada Children's Clinic in Reno and left to start his own pediatrics practice. His former sponsor in the J-1 program is suing him for breach of contract; Mathew has filed a counterclaim in the case.

Michael Stein, the Las Vegas lawyer handling the claim against Mathew, said the doctor's allegations of indentured servitude have no merit. He said Mathew made wages much higher than he could have earned in India and is ungrateful for his opportunity.

"My client did a lot of nice things for this guy," Stein said. He said Mathew left the Reno clinic on short notice and the pediatrics practice had to close because there wasn't enough time to recruit and train other doctors to serve the clinic's patients.

"This is a breach of contract case and has nothing to do with indentured servitude," Stein said. "The J-1 visa issue is interesting, and I can't speak for the other doctors who complained. But in Dr. Mathew's case, an agreement was violated. "I'm confident our case will prevail."

Last month, the Las Vegas Sun published a series on J-1 doctors who said they were forced to work up to 100 hours a week at low pay, required to sign for loans to benefit their sponsors and were threatened with deportation if they complained.

"When I read about the other doctors in Las Vegas, I decided to testify (to the Legislative Committee on Health Care)," Mathew said. "I had experienced some of the same things."

Mathew's lawyer, Scott Tisevich of Reno, said his client's case is about a violation of the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and indentured servitude. Mathew's counterclaim alleges he was "forced" to execute a loan guarantee of $75,000 as a condition of continuing his employment agreement.

Mathew admitted he walked away from his extended employment agreement last year but, in his counterclaim, contended the agreement is "void as being contrary to public policy" and "was obtained under duress" and therefore void.

Other states also are investigating allegations of abuse within the J-1 program and Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the program in June.