Mass. takes key step towards making the most of immigrant medical talent

State’s FY2020 budget creates commission to address barriers to practice for foreign-trained health professionals, deploy them in high-need areas.

Dr. Skarlleth Cuevas shows her tattoo
Dr. Skarlleth Cuevas, a Costa Rican immigrant, got this tattoo to remind herself that whatever job she’s doing now, she’s still a physician.

BOSTON, Aug. 1, 2019 – A new commission created in the FY2020 state budget that Governor Baker signed this week will help address our Commonwealth’s critical shortages of medical providers by identifying best practices to license and deploy foreign-trained health professionals.

Massachusetts has some of the best medical facilities in the world, but it also fails woefully to meet many people’s basic needs. Over 7% of state residents lack adequate access to primary care, dental care, or mental health services, including more than 500,000 low-income people in Greater Boston, Western, Central and Southeastern Massachusetts.

Yet we also have a lot of untapped talent: more than 8,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, mental health providers and other medical professionals who were educated abroad – over 20% of whom are jobless or underemployed because they’ve had difficulties getting licensed in the U.S.

An “outside section“ in the FY2020 budget directly addresses this issue by establishing a 23-member commission that will bring together all the key stakeholders – state agencies, hospital and health center leaders, professional organizations, educators, and affected clinicians – to tackle barriers to licensure, with the express goal of deploying these providers in underserved, high-need areas.

“This is exciting news for highly skilled immigrants and refugees in Massachusetts,” said MIRA Executive Director Eva A. Millona. “We are fortunate to attract highly accomplished people from all over the world, and we should do everything we can to enable them to thrive here. When we make the most of the talent in our communities, our entire Commonwealth benefits.”

“The shortage of health care workers across Massachusetts and the nation must be addressed urgently,” said state Sen. Jason M. Lewis, D–5th Middlesex, on whose bill the budget provision was based. “By addressing obstacles facing foreign-trained medical professionals in their efforts to obtain their full medical licenses here in the Commonwealth, we can tackle those work force challenges.

“Marrying this pool of unused talent with a population in need of better access to services would help us to better meet our health care needs and expand opportunity at the same time,” he added. “I’m confident that this policy will expand access in underserved communities, improve health care outcomes, and empower all qualified medical professionals to participate actively in the work force.”

Rep. Jack P. Lewis, D–7th Middlesex, who sponsored the legislation in the House, remarked: “I was honored to partner with MIRA and Senator Lewis in advocating for this bill over the last two years, and thrilled to see it signed by the governor as part of this year’s budget.

“It will be a critical step not only in supporting the Commonwealth’s thriving and skilled immigrant community, but also in addressing critical inequities in healthcare access across our Commonwealth,” he said. “I know that in MetroWest, we sorely need more multilingual and multicultural medical professionals – and we have untapped talent right in our communities.”

For affected clinicians, the new commission offers hope after years of struggle.

“I am so excited as Haitian who has trained as doctor in Mexico and France that I would be able to contribute my clinical skills to serve people who cross many intersections, addressing their cultures and backgrounds, especially in mental health,” said Dr. Judith Thermidor. “This important step will allow foreign trained-physicians to work together with American doctors to address an urgent need: eliminating inequities in the quality and availability of health care for ethnic, racial and economic minorities by increasing the cultural competence of Massachusetts’ health care work force.”

“I am very happy and full of good expectations for the steps Massachusetts is taking to help doctors like me to become part of the health care system,” said Dr. Jorge Carias, from El Salvador. “I came here three years ago, and I have longed every day for an opportunity to put my skills to work for my community.”

The new commission is charged with studying and making recommendations on (i) strategies to integrate foreign-trained medical professionals into rural and underserved areas; (ii) state and federal licensing regulations that may pose unnecessary barriers; (iii) potential changes to Massachusetts licensing requirements; (iv) opportunities to advocate for corresponding changes to national licensing requirements; and (v) any other relevant matters.

The commission is to submit a report to the Legislature by July 1, 2021, including proposed bills to carry out its recommendations.

Several foreign-trained health professionals pose with Amy Grunder, MIRA legislative affairs director (center), after a hearing in October 2017. Dr. Judith Thermidor, quoted above, stands next to her.
Several foreign-trained health professionals pose with Amy Grunder, MIRA legislative affairs director (center), after a hearing in October 2017. Dr. Judith Thermidor, quoted above, stands next to her.