Baker goes silent on foreign-trained docs

‘The need is even greater now,’ says Millona

IN EARLY APRIL, amid the first COVID-19 surge and an emerging shortage of health care workers, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order allowing foreign-trained medical doctors to gain full licensure here in Massachusetts.

This came after a slew of legislators and immigration advocates appealed to his administration to utilize that workforce. At the end of July, when cases of COVID-19 were ebbing, Baker rescinded the order, a move that allowed those who received their license during the previous three months to continue practicing but barred any new applications.

Now, with cases rising fast and the state once again facing a shortage of health care workers, the Baker administration has gone strangely silent on why the program isn’t being resuscitated and even expanded beyond doctors.

Officials in the governor’s office and three other state agencies declined to provide any information, or didn’t reply to requests on how many doctors were recruited under the earlier executive order or on whether the program would be renewed or expanded to nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical specialists.

Immigrant advocates are calling for the executive order to be reinstated and broadened to include other medical professionals as hospitals continue to be flooded with patients and field hospitals struggle to find medical professionals to hire.

“The need is even greater now, given where we are with COVID. It’s not going anywhere,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). The organization has advocated for the state to tap into the unused pool of talent.

Two weeks ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders announced nurse staffing ratio requirements would be eased so that hospitals with less than 20 percent of intensive care beds vacant could request an exemption from mandated nurse-to-patient ratios. That decision was made as the Commonwealth had difficulty staffing up its field hospitals in Worcester and Lowell during the continued holiday flood of coronavirus patients.

Millona said she recently spoke with a doctor from Italy doing research at Harvard who she described as “very qualified” who would love to be able to practice the skills he was trained in.

“There’s still a need for extension, given that those who are foreign trained can also provide cultural sensitivities, and help distribute the vaccine as well,” said Millona.

Legislators are similarly calling on Baker and Sudders to make a move to make use of available foreign-trained health care workers.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“We ought to explore reinstating the order in the current surge as we see hospitalizations increase and the need to ensure adequate staffing of field hospitals, vaccination sites, and other settings,” said Rep. Mindy Domb of Northampton.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, which studies immigrants and their role in the workforce, there are 263,000 immigrants and refugees who have a four-year degree in a health-related field who are either confined to low-paying jobs that require at most a high school degree (such as home health or personal care aides) or are out of work.

While it is unknown exactly how many foreign-trained medical professionals live in Massachusetts, a survey from MIRA received hundreds of responses last summer. The organization estimates 20 percent of the state’s foreign-trained medical professionals are unable to practice.