New Commission Will Work To Certify Immigrant Medical Providers, Alleviate Care Shortages

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Massachusetts State House (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts State House (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Skarlleth Kauffman says she misses her practice as a general physician so much, that she tries to return home to volunteer once a year in Costa Rica. That's where she was trained and practiced medicine for six years.

Kauffman has been living in Massachusetts for 11 years, working mostly as a certified nursing assistant.

"For me, it's very frustrating to see how in this beautiful country they're wasting the resource we can provide for the community," she says.

Massachusetts has thousands of highly skilled medical providers who aren't working at the level at which they've been trained. For many, that's because they were educated in other countries, and they're having a tough time affording — among other challenges — the path to a license here.

The state's new budget provides for the creation of a new commission focused on how to help those foreign-born health care providers get certified here.

Kauffman says she'd like to study for the medical boards, but the prep courses are out of her budget. She recently took a position as a community health worker in Springfield but still feels her skills are underutilized.

"There's no program in Massachusetts to help foreign physicians to be able to have access in a cheaper way to be prepared for the medical boards," she says.

The new commission, however, will address barriers to certification, including cost and language. In the process, the state hopes to expand medical services in rural and under-served areas.

State Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-sponsored the bill creating the commission, says it’s not about weakening standards of care but instead about alleviating obstacles. For doctors in particular, Lewis says, a big hurdle is gaining a residency spot.

“If you’re a graduate of a U.S. medical school, nine out of 10 will get placed in a residency program. But if you graduated from a medical school outside of the United States, only about five out of 10 are able to get placed in residency slots.”

Eva Millona heads the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. The group has been pushing for more support from the state to help highly skilled immigrants integrate into their fields of expertise.

"Massachusetts being home to over a million foreign-born, part of 18% of our workforce, there are many immigrants and refugees who come with high skills, especially nurses and doctors, and there are several under-served areas who need doctors," she says.

According to Millona, more than 7% of Massachusetts residents lack adequate access to primary care, dental and mental health care services.

State leaders still have to select the 23 members of the commission. The group will have until July 2021 to issue recommendations.

This segment aired on August 1, 2019.

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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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