Bill aims to mobilize skilled practitioners trained abroad to help meet Mass. healthcare needs

More than 20% of foreign-trained doctors, pharmacists, nurses and other health professionals living in the Commonwealth are unemployed or working outside their fields.

BOSTON, March 28, 2017 – Massachusetts has a lot of doctors, but when it comes to meeting basic needs, it falls short. More than 7 percent of state residents lack adequate access to primary care, dental care, or mental health services. This includes more than 500,000 low-income people in 25 cities and towns in Berkshire, Bristol, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Middlesex, Suffolk and Worcester Counties.

A new bill before the Massachusetts Legislature aims to narrow the gap by tapping into a major source of underused talent: the 8,000 foreign-trained health professionals living in the Commonwealth, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists and mental health professionals, among others. More than 20 percent of those practitioners are currently unemployed or working in lower-skilled jobs. They have been unable to reenter their professions due to complex and costly licensing requirements, lack of information, and lack of targeted career services.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Lewis (D-Ashland) in the House and Sen. Jason M. Lewis (D-Winchester) in the Senate, and cosponsored by dozens of their colleagues, would create a commission to explore ways to reduce licensing and other barriers to professional integration, enabling these providers to provide health services to state residents in areas of greatest need. The commission’s findings would also benefit U.S. citizens who study medicine abroad.

“We are excited about this opportunity to address an ongoing lack of adequate healthcare access for our residents, particularly in more rural areas – with a common-sense and cost-effective solution,” said Rep. Lewis. “This bill would allow us to leverage the incredible skill and knowledge base of the Commonwealth’s biggest asset: our immigrant population. I am thrilled to be working on such an important bill as I start my State House career.”

Research shows that foreign-trained clinicians are more likely to work in underserved areas, and when they do, they can significantly improve health outcomes. Minority physicians and physicians of color also serve a disproportionate share of underserved populations, including patients with limited English skills. Diversity in healthcare providers is strongly associated with improved access to care for racial and ethnic minority patients.

“Communities do best when they make the most of the talent available to them,” said Eva A. Millona, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “This bill is an important first step toward integrating immigrant health care professionals into our workforce and directing their skills to where they are most needed. Many of these practitioners came to our Commonwealth as refugees, and are eager to serve their communities – they want nothing more than to give back to the society that welcomed them.”

Jeff Thielman, President and CEO of the International Institute of New England, echoed that perspective. “This bill improves access to healthcare for underserved communities in Massachusetts, and it leverages the talent of highly skilled, multilingual medical professionals who are eager to use their training to help people in the Commonwealth,” he said. “It’s a win for communities in Massachusetts and a win for new Americans.”

The inter-agency commission created by the legislation would include senior executive branch officials, House and Senate leadership, both Chairs of the Joint Committee on Public Health, and representatives of all boards of registration in health professions. Together, they would identify barriers to practice for foreign-trained medical professionals, with the goal of directing their services to rural and underserved areas with the greatest need.

“This Commission will allow the legislature to look carefully at this issue and to determine what the Commonwealth’s next steps should be,” said Sen. Lewis. “We feel strongly that there are many positive steps that we could take to ensure that talent is not being wasted, and that populations are able to access the quality healthcare that they deserve.”

The commission would explore strategies to integrate foreign-trained medical professionals into rural and underserved areas needing health services; identify state or national licensing regulations that pose unnecessary barriers to practice; recommend possible changes to state licensing requirements; and develop guidelines for full or conditional licensing of foreign-trained health professionals. The commission would file a report containing its recommendations including any legislation and necessary regulations with the Joint Committee on Public Health no later than July 1, 2018.

Note to editors: The bill, titled “An Act to increase access to healthcare in underserved areas of Massachusetts,” was filed as S.1216 and H.3248.