• OnWord Partner

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

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

After years of determined advocacy, working with partners in the state legislature, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) and its allies have seen a major breakthrough in state legislation to advance the careers and contributions of foreign-trained health professionals (FTHPs) in Massachusetts and strengthen medical services for underserved communities in the state.


Since 2014, when he was the Director of MIRA’s New Americans Integration Institute, OnWord Partner’s Jeff Gross has been working with cross-sector allies across the state to push Massachusetts to take steps towards reducing barriers and opening doors for foreign-trained immigrants and refugees to practice in the state. That includes collaborating with partners at Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA) to bring together in 2014 the FTHP Network--a group of foreign-trained physicians, nurses and other medical professionals initially drawn from members of CHA’s Volunteer Health Advisor's (VHA) Program and SAWA, a VHA initiative to address the health needs of the local Muslim population. The group is jointly coordinated by Jeff, who is also a policy consultant at World Education Services Global Talent Bridge, and Dr. Robert Marlin, formerly of CHA and currently Director of the Metta Health Center at Lowell Community Health Center.


“Our original goal was to provide a place for peer networking and career support for immigrant and refugee health professionals, including many physicians, who were struggling with the process of relicensing in their occupations here and often stuck in low-wage jobs,” Jeff says. “But many also wanted to be active advocating for change in the system as a whole.” In fact, it was a member of the group, an Iranian physician, who convinced Senator Jason Lewis--the Senator in that physician’s district--to file in 2017 the budget amendment that evolved into the measure passed into law this session.


Over the past three years, numerous members of the FTHP group have joined advocates from MIRA and other organizations, among them the Massachusetts Medical Society, the American Immigration Lawyers Association/New England Chapter, and OnWord Partner, in pushing for legislation that would advance the contributions of foreign-trained health professionals in Massachusetts. That has included sharing their personal stories and hopes for the future before legislative gatherings. OnWord Partner is proud to have played a role in reaching out to and supporting these immigrant professionals in this process.


On August 1, Jeff was happy to email the FTHP Network members--now numbering almost 100--with the good news: “I'm thrilled to let you know that the foreign-trained medical legislation we've been discussing was passed and signed into law this week as part of the state's 2020 budget.” 


Jeff was referring to a provision added to the FY2020 budget that seeks to address some of the obstacles foreign-trained healthcare professionals face when they seek to relicense and return to their professions when they arrive in the United States. In Massachusetts, over 20 percent of the approximately 8,000 medical professionals who received their education and licenses to practice outside of the U.S. are currently unemployed or underemployed in low-wage jobs, in large part due to complications arising from the licensing process here and other system barriers.


The budget provision, as MIRA’s press release notes, will establish a 23-member commission that 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 will include legislative and executive branch leaders; representatives of licensing boards, healthcare employers, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations; and foreign-educated health professionals themselves. It is charged with delivering its report and recommendations to the legislature no later than July 1, 2021. 


Judith Thermidor, a physician from Haiti who testified in support of the bill, spoke for what these developments could mean to her, to other FTHPs, and to the Commonwealth as a whole: “I am so excited as a Haitian who has trained as a 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. 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 workforce.”


The legislation is an important first step, but much work remains ahead for immigrant advocates and other stakeholders. This starts with convening the commission itself, completing the report and recommendations it is charged with creating, working to successfully advance the recommended legislative and regulatory changes, and finally making sure those changes are implemented in a way that meets both the needs of foreign-trained health professionals and the public health goals of the bill. As Jeff notes, “it will be a journey for all of us. But if we’re searching for inspiration in getting this job done, we don’t have to look farther than the spirit, resourcefulness, commitment and camaraderie of the members of the FTHP Network themselves.”

Advocates and foreign-trained health professionals after a legislative hearing (fourth from the right is Dr. Judith Thermidor, quoted above; second from the right is OnWord Partner Founder and President Shelly Hedstrom). Image retrieved from miracoalition.org


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