On Aug. 10, Governor Baker signed a bill into law that implements measures to address the mental health crisis in Massachusetts. Leaders at Mass General Brigham (MGB) and other organizations played a key role in championing one of these measures: to expand access to treatment for health professionals with substance use disorders (SUD).

“It is deeply important that we remove the stigma surrounding SUD and work together to foster a supportive environment where nurses and other health care professionals can recover and safely work in their practice settings,” said Maddy Pearson, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, senior vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at the Brigham. “Removing barriers to treatment for health care professionals is vital to their ability to seek support and ultimately deliver safe care to patients, which is our top priority.”

Pearson, who co-chairs the MGB Chief Nursing Officer Council, was among leaders of the system’s advocacy for this legislation in partnership with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association and the Organization of Nurse Leaders.

In addition to Pearson, MGB leaders involved included Chris Philbin and Kevin Sanginario of the Office of Government Affairs; Bernard Jones, vice president of Value-Based Care, Public Policy and Administrative Operations at the Brigham; Vanessa Gilbreth of the Office of General Counsel; and Regina Hagono, of Analytics, Planning, Strategy and Improvement at the Brigham.

“This was a collaborative effort among internal and external stakeholders, and we’re thankful to everyone involved for their efforts to secure the passage of this important bill that supports health care professionals,” said Philbin, vice president of Government Affairs.

Currently, nurses with suspected SUD are referred to the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) through the Board of Registration in Nursing. The program has been underutilized, with 0.01 percent of the state’s nurses in enrolling in fiscal year 2018.

“The stringent eligibility criteria prevent nurses with a mental health history from applying, and wait times for the program are long,” said Pearson. “Additionally, if a nurse has a relapse, he or she must wait at least a year to request monitored re-entry into practice. We know relapse is a normal part of the recovery process, and it should be treated with the same understanding given to those who have relapses in treatment for other chronic illnesses.”

With the bill’s passage, the Department of Public Health (DPH) will establish a new, voluntary program for all licensed health care professionals who seek support for their mental health or substance use.  An advisory committee of external stakeholders will assist DPH in the development and implementation of the program with the goal of creating a best-in-class experience for participants.

“Our goals were to revamp the state’s program for nursing and to ensure that other health care professionals would also receive improved access to care and treatment,” said Gilbreth, senior legal counsel. “It’s critical that all health care professionals have the resources to receive care, recover and successfully return to their work.”

In addition to nursing, the bill also pertains to pharmacy, dentistry, nursing home administrators, physician assistants, perfusionists, genetic counselors, respiratory therapists, community health workers, naturopathy and emergency medical services. Physicians receive support through the Physician Health Services Program in Massachusetts.

“Other states have non-punitive programs that support nurses and health care professionals and provide the treatment they need to successfully return to practice,” said Pearson. “Massachusetts is renowned for the world-class health care we offer to patients and loved ones. We need to make sure we are also caring for our health care professionals and treating them with the same compassion they show each one of us when we find ourselves in their care.”

Jones noted the dedication of the individuals and organizations leading this effort.

“The passage of the bill is the culmination of nearly four years of work for those involved and is a perfect example of the important role our institutions can play in developing and, in this case, improving public policy,” he said. “This effort has included extensive research, the development of a white paper, and testimony at a public hearing, all to ensure that we have provided information and education around this issue in support of improved access to treatment and ultimately to change how the system works.”