Senate Kids First Working Group Releases “Kids First” Strategic Blueprint

Members of the Senate Kids First working group, including Senator Jason Lewis, released Kids First: A Vision for a Stronger Commonwealth, a strategic blueprint for investing in children and their families to build pathways to successful, productive, and healthy adulthood.

For the last fifteen years, Massachusetts has seen roughly 40% of its third graders overall – and 6 out of 10 low-income third graders – not reading at grade level, highlighting the shortcomings of our early education efforts and the steep challenges of future efforts to close the achievement gap.  Kids First proposes the goal of reducing by at least half the number of third-graders who are not reading proficiently by 2027.

To dramatically increase third grade reading proficiency rates and support the whole child, the Senate’s Kids First initiative has established four broad areas within which to focus specific strategies: Access, Quality, Readiness, and Integration.  These four pillars provide the foundation on which all policy recommendations in Kids First are centered.

“We can help hundreds of thousands of children stay in school, stay out of jail, and lead productive and successful lives, or we can continue to pay the price of neglecting them.  Investing in our children is one of the best returns around, and improving third grade reading proficiency is the place to start,” said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.  “I’m very proud of the Kids First working group.”

“I am proud of the comprehensive vision put forth in the Kids First blueprint,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “In it, the Senate makes a vital commitment to the fundamental integration of services in critical areas including mental health and social-emotional learning.  The social-emotional learning component of Kids First is essential to strengthening the critical thinking, communication, and interpersonal skills of our young people.  Kids First will serve as an invaluable guide, and it was a privilege to serve on the working group.”

Senate President Rosenberg created the Kids First initiative to propose a series of recommendations that seek to build strong and resilient kids in the Commonwealth.  Together, Senate President Rosenberg and Kids First initiative chair Senator Sal DiDomenico of Everett convened a cross-jurisdictional working group of senators to look comprehensively at a wide array of policy areas that relate to supporting children.  The Kids First working group invited experts in diverse fields including early childhood development, health, education, housing, and nutrition, among others, to share their knowledge through questionnaires, meetings, and presentations.

“Building strong and resilient children should, and must, be our Commonwealth’s number one priority, and achieving this goal requires our devotion to this commitment at every step of a child’s educational, social, and economic upbringing” said Senator Sal DiDomenico, chair of the Senate’s Kids First initiative. “I am proud of the strategic vision and values laid out by the Senate in Kids First, and I am confident that this document will provide our Commonwealth with a critical road map of steps we must take to make serious, significant, and sustained investments in our children’s futures.”

“If we are serious about closing the persistent achievement gap, we know that we must start earlier and consider opportunities to connect health, education, and housing,” said Amy O’Leary, Director of Early Education for All.

After collecting extensive input, the Senate working group crafted a vision statement of strategic priorities, including budget and policy recommendations, selected to re-orient Massachusetts towards a 21st century education system and to begin prioritizing long-term, smart, and strategic investments in children and their families that will provide a pathway to healthy, productive adulthood.  While this initiative is broad in scope, from pre-natal to college/career, the focus and content of this Senate vision statement is on the critical years of birth through age 9.

The plan laid out in Kids First is not meant as a blueprint for omnibus legislation or any piece of legislation in particular.  Rather, it is offered as a statement of the Senate’s vision for children and a statement of budgetary priorities in the years to come.  A link to the blueprint can be found online at https://malegislature.gov/cc/reports/kidsfirstblueprint.pdf.

Column: Improving Access to Quality Healthcare

Massachusetts is home to more than 32,000 primary care and specialist physicians, and many highly regarded hospitals and other healthcare providers. Nevertheless, many residents report difficulties accessing the care they need.

According to a recent survey by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, among adults who had insurance for the entire previous year, 47% said they had experienced difficulty seeing a doctor. This was because they could not find a provider who accepted their insurance or was accepting new patients, or because they could not get an appointment as soon as needed. The severity of the problem varies by region in the state, and is particularly acute for primary care doctors.

This situation is likely to worsen in the years ahead since, according to the Association for American Medical College’s Center for Workforce Studies, the United States is expected to face a shortage of more than 130,000 physicians by 2025 and a deficit of 918,000 registered nurses by 2030.

One of the strategies we should be pursuing to close this gap and improve access to quality healthcare for all residents of the Commonwealth is to take better advantage of foreign-trained medical professionals. An estimated 12,000 Massachusetts residents are foreign-trained doctors, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists, or other healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, more than 20% of these practitioners are unemployed or working in lower-skilled jobs that do not take full advantage of their talents and expertise. They face a number of barriers to working in their chosen professions in Massachusetts, including shortages of residency placements, limited access to information about licensure, complex and costly licensing requirements, and minimal hands-on clinical experience.

Marrying this pool of unused talent with a population in need of better access to services would help us to better meet our healthcare needs and expand opportunity at the same time. Research shows that foreign-trained clinicians are more likely to work in underserved areas; and, when they do, they can significantly improve health outcomes. Minority physicians and physicians of color also serve a disproportionate share of underserved populations, including patients with limited English skills. Research also suggests that greater diversity in the healthcare workforce, particularly better racial and cultural concordance, can improve clinical outcomes.

I first became aware of this issue as a result of conversations with a constituent who lives in Malden. Dr. Afsaneh Moradi came to Massachusetts in 2011 from Iran, where she had graduated from medical school and practiced as a primary care physician. She subsequently passed all three steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Unfortunately, although graduates of U.S. medical schools gain residency placements nine out of ten times, international medical school graduates who have successfully passed the USMLE are only placed at a rate of roughly five out of ten. Despite having graduated in the top 1% of her class and having already practiced medicine for seven years in her home country, as well as committing a lot of her time to volunteering and unpaid observerships, Dr. Moradi is still waiting to land a residency slot. Her life-saving talent remains under-utilized and her potential patients remain lacking for adequate access to quality healthcare.

To help address this problem I have filed An Act to Increase Access to Health Care in Underserved Areas of Massachusetts. This legislation would create an inter-agency commission to identify barriers to practice for foreign-trained medical professionals and ways to overcome these barriers, with the goal of directing their services especially to rural and underserved areas with the greatest need. The commission would identify state or national licensing regulations that pose unnecessary barriers to practice; recommend possible changes to state licensing requirements; and, develop guidelines for full or conditional licensing of foreign-trained health professionals.

For Dr. Moradi and others stuck in a similar situation, and for the many Massachusetts residents who need better access to care, I’m hopeful this bill will become law.

Senator Jason Lewis Named by Governor Baker to STEM Advisory Board

Governor Charlie Baker recently named 29 appointed and 10 ex officio members, including Senator Jason Lewis, to the Massachusetts STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Advisory Council. The STEM Advisory Council strives to expand access to quality STEM education for students across the Commonwealth.

Senator Lewis was named an ex officio member of the Council in his capacity as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.  Senator Lewis also serves as a member of the Joint Committee on Education.

The STEM Advisory Council began its work by undertaking an exploratory process to determine where the Council could have the most impact. The Council endorsed four areas on which to focus its work: expanding work-based learning opportunities in STEM fields; developing and implementing early college career pathways; broadening access to high-quality computer science and engineering education; and, strengthening and aligning the work of the Regional STEM Networks.

“STEM industries continue to grow rapidly across the Commonwealth and help strengthen our nation-leading innovation economy,” said Governor Baker. “In order for Massachusetts to continue capitalizing in STEM, it’s important we continue to expose our students to these industries and I look forward to the work the advisory council will take on this year.”

“Education in the STEM fields has proven to be a strong foundation for in-demand jobs and attractive careers,” said Senator Lewis.  “I look forward to working with colleagues on the STEM Advisory Council to explore opportunities to further expand educational opportunities for all students.”

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimates that, during the next decade, U.S. industries will need one million more STEM graduates than the system is expected to produce.  Despite the need, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that just 1 in 6 high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in pursuing STEM higher education or careers.

Created by M.G.L. Chapter 6, Section 218, the Council brings together representatives from state agencies and the Legislature, as well as public and private sector partners involved with STEM planning and programming.

Senator Jason Lewis Receives “Friend of Nursing” Award from American Nurses Association-Massachusetts

Citing his strong support for the nursing profession and for safeguarding public health, the American Nurses Association-Massachusetts (ANA Mass) presented Senator Jason Lewis the “Friend of Nursing” award at their recent annual Awards Dinner and Conference.  ANA Mass’ mission is to advance the profession of nursing and the quality of patient care across the Commonwealth.

In presenting Senator Lewis with this award, ANA Mass President Cathleen Colleran stressed that Senator Lewis has been “very supportive of the issues that face the nursing practice at the State House” in his role as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, and also mentioned his work to ensure that public health is put ahead of industry profits in the legalization of commercial marijuana.

In his remarks upon receiving the award, Senator Lewis said that he is looking forward to continuing to work with ANA Mass on a number of important issues, including safe patient handling, reducing workplace violence, and modernizing the scope of practice for nurse practitioners. He added that “it is unacceptable that there are more injuries suffered by nurses in hospitals and other healthcare facilities than workers in any other employment setting. We must do more to ensure the safety and well-being of nurses in the Commonwealth.”

Senator Lewis served as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health during the 2015-2016 legislative session, and continues in that role during the current 2017-2018 session, along with the newly added role of Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

Column: Local Economic Development a Top Priority

Small businesses are routinely referred to as the backbone of our economy for good reason.  They are the economic engines of our communities’ Main Streets.  According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, Massachusetts is home to 615,775 small businesses, which employ more than 1.4 million workers, about half of the state’s private workforce.  Small businesses make up 97.8% of all employers in the state.

Because the vitality of small businesses in the Commonwealth is so integral to our overall economic health, bolstering local economic growth and development has always been one of my highest priorities.  Among my legislative agenda for the new legislative session are three priority bills that I have filed to facilitate economic growth on our Main Streets and revitalize our downtowns.

An Act Relative to Promoting Local Economic Development would create a program to provide funding or other opportunities, such as technical assistance, to municipalities or regions that maximize opportunities for economic development planning and growth by meeting a series of criteria. These criteria would include a self-assessment of economic potential and the identification of unique strengths and assets. This bill borrows the conceptual structure of the Green Communities program, which provides funding opportunities for municipalities that reduce and improve their use of energy, and would be administered through the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

An Act Relative to Marketing Prioritized Development Sites would require the Massachusetts Office of Business Development (MOBD) to create and maintain a statewide searchable database of developable land and vacant sites, with listings submitted at no cost by local officials. This database would create a more comprehensive online marketing portal than currently exists for all locally prioritized sites across the state, giving each city and town the equal opportunity to submit prioritized development sites for inclusion.

An Act Establishing the Office of Massachusetts Main Streets would create an office within state government to operate as the principal agency for promoting and protecting the downtown and commercial districts of our cities and towns.  The Office of Massachusetts Main Streets would provide informational, marketing, and technical assistance, as well as coordinate federal, state, and local efforts to further enhance our downtown and commercial districts.

A vitally important role for state government is to be a supportive partner for municipal governments and the business community as we work to strengthen our local economies and create jobs.  In concert with one another, these bills would enhance the ability of our cities and towns to take advantage of all opportunities to economically grow and thrive through increased resources and more comprehensive planning, as well as provide support and guidance for entrepreneurs and small businesses in our communities.

I welcome your feedback on how we can better support our Main Streets and foster growth in our local economies.  Please visit my website at www.SenatorJasonLewis.com to share your thoughts, or contact my State House office anytime at Jason.Lewis@masenate.gov or at (617) 722-1206.

Senator Jason Lewis Named Arc of Massachusetts Legislator of the Year

Senator Jason Lewis is honored to announce that he has been named Legislator of the Year by The Arc of Massachusetts.  The mission of The Arc of Massachusetts, which was founded more than sixty years ago, is to enhance the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

Senator Lewis received the award at a State House ceremony held by The Arc of Massachusetts in coordination with the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council.  The award was presented to Senator Lewis by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.

In awarding Senator Lewis the Legislator of the Year award, advocates cited his efforts to help pass a new law to prohibit discrimination based on disability in access to organ transplantation, as well as his advocacy for expanding Operation House Call, a program to educate medical professionals on how to address the unique healthcare needs of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Through my work with statewide organizations like The Arc of Massachusetts and local advocates like Triangle, which is based in Malden, I have gained valuable insight on how state government can play a meaningful role to help enhance individuals’ independence and support their effort to maximize their potential and ability to play active roles in their communities,” said Senator Jason Lewis.  “I’m honored to receive this award, and I look forward to continuing our work to improve the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families.”

Senator Lewis serves as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health and Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.  In the former role, he has had the opportunity to advocate on issues pertaining to the health and well-being of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  In the latter role, to which he was recently appointed, he looks forward to supporting efforts to enhance employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to work independently in their communities.

Column: Alzheimer’s Disease is a Growing Public Health Crisis

Former President Ronald Reagan’s disclosure in 1994 that he had Alzheimer’s disease helped to raise the profile of this terrible illness. Although we have made progress in the years since in understanding this disease, there is still no cure in sight and a looming public health crisis on the horizon.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and eventually all ability to function. More than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease — including 120,000 in Massachusetts — and this number is expected to triple by 2050. Nearly one in three seniors who dies each year has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. With 1,699 deaths due to Alzheimer’s in Massachusetts in 2012, it is the Commonwealth’s sixth leading cause of death, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. What is particularly alarming is that most people living with Alzheimer’s have never even been diagnosed or are not aware of their diagnosis.

The growing cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is a huge burden on our healthcare system. In 2015, the direct costs totaled $226 billion, with 50% of these costs borne by Medicare and another 18% borne by Medicaid. Today, nearly one in five Medicare dollars is spent on people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and this is projected to increase to one in every three dollars by 2050. At that point in time the total cost is expected to exceed $1 trillion annually (in 2015 dollars).

Alzheimer’s takes a devastating toll, not just on those with the disease but also on their families and caregivers. Nearly 60% of caregivers rate the emotional stress as high or very high, and about 40% suffer from depression.

With the leadership of Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs Alice Bonner, and advocates across the Commonwealth like the Alzheimer’s Association, we are slowly making progress in addressing Alzheimer’s in areas ranging from housing to transportation to public safety to caregiving. There are promising developments underway in making communities more “aging positive” and “dementia friendly” to better serve the needs of all elders, especially those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

We are also pursuing various legislative initiatives on Beacon Hill. For instance, the Public Health Committee, on which I serve as Senate Chair, favorably passed legislation last session to create the Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Project under the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. This initiative would coordinate all government programs and services to ensure that all available resources are being effectively leveraged, and we are doing everything possible to improve Alzheimer’s prevention, treatment, and caregiving supports. Though this legislation didn’t become law last session, it will continue to be one of my top priorities as Senate Chair of the Public Health Committee during the new legislative session.

Additionally, because of the alarmingly low rate of diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease, legislation has been filed that would require further physician training on Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Better training for non-specialists on how to recognize Alzheimer’s early and interact with patients who have cognitive impairments will improve the delivery of care across our healthcare system. Further, because elders with dementia are at a greater risk of abuse, legislation has been filed that would strengthen training for elder services workers to better prevent and detect abuse or self-neglect.

These efforts are all important and we must pursue them with greater vigor and urgency if we are to have a meaningful impact on addressing Alzheimer’s disease in Massachusetts.

Column: Controlling Healthcare Costs by Focusing on Prevention and Wellness

As Ben Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Prevention focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles and behaviors in order to avoid disease and illness. Prevention can help us stay healthy and enjoy a higher quality of life. By keeping people healthier, an ounce of prevention today can also avoid much larger healthcare expenditures later.

Take, for example, the growing epidemic of diabetes. Since 1990, the percentage of Massachusetts residents living with diabetes has risen from 3.8% to 7.2%. According to the American Diabetes Association, the medical cost of treating a person with diabetes is 2-3 times greater than for somebody who does not suffer from the disease. In Massachusetts, we now spend more than $3 billion each year in direct medical costs to treat diabetes, and also suffer an indirect cost of more than $1 billion in lost productivity.

Unfortunately, our healthcare system in Massachusetts and around the country is best described as a “sick care” system. We generally excel at taking care of people when they are injured or suffering from an illness or chronic health condition. But, we are not very good at helping people to stay healthy and out of the doctor’s office or hospital. Only a tiny fraction, roughly 3-4%, of the total resources we spend on healthcare are invested in public health and prevention. Moreover, while factors including a person’s genetics and access to care are important in health outcomes, the social determinants of health are actually far more significant in determining a person’s health status over time.

This is why, in 2012, I helped lead the effort to create a first-in-the-nation Prevention and Wellness Trust Fund (PWTF). It was included as part of major healthcare payment reform legislation signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick. The PWTF funds community partnerships made up of municipal governments, healthcare providers, and local health and human service organizations, all working closely together to achieve a community-wide focus on prevention and wellness. The goal is to reduce rates of the most prevalent and preventable health conditions, address health disparities, and reduce healthcare costs.

Since its creation the PWTF has increased access to preventive services for nearly one million Massachusetts residents. A recently completed review of the program by Harvard Catalyst demonstrated very promising early results. For example, PWTF communities saw improvements in blood pressure that, if sustained over patients’ lifetimes, could result in 500 to 1,000 fewer heart attacks and strokes per million residents, and lead to 125 to 250 fewer deaths due to cardiovascular disease per million residents treated. The program has become a national model for how to build effective clinical-community linkages for sharing health data, improving health outcomes, and ultimately reducing healthcare costs.

However, without action by the state legislature, funding for the PWTF will sunset later this year. I have sponsored An act to promote public health through the prevention and wellness trust fund in the new legislative session to reauthorize and expand the PWTF. Working with my colleagues in the legislature and a broad coalition of community partners, led by the Massachusetts Public Health Association and Health Care For All, I’m hopeful that we will be successful in continuing this vital work to shift our healthcare system from a “sick care” system to a “well care” system.

Senator Jason Lewis Appointed Senate Chair of Legislature’s Committees on Labor and Workforce Development, Public Health

Senator Jason Lewis is pleased to announce that he has been appointed by Senate President Stanley Rosenberg to serve as the Senate Chair of two of the Legislature’s Joint Committees for the 2017-2018 legislative session, the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and the Committee on Public Health.

Senator Lewis looks forward to his new role as Senate Chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, whose purview covers labor laws, workers’ compensation, job training, and related employment issues. This leadership position will enable him to be a strong advocate for working families and the needs of local employers. Some of the important issues that will be considered by this committee include the minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, non-compete agreements, and efforts to strengthen job training and workforce development programs.

Senator Lewis is also pleased to continue in his role as Senate Chair of the Public Health Committee, a leadership position he held during the 2015-2016 legislative session. Senator Lewis also serves as Senate co-Chair of the Prevention for Health Caucus, which he helped found in 2011. In these roles, he looks forward to continuing his efforts to strengthen public health and prevention, in order to improve health and lower healthcare costs.

“I’m excited to continue my work on promoting healthy communities and disease prevention, containing healthcare costs, and expanding resources for preventing and treating mental illness and substance abuse,” said Senator Lewis. “I’m also enthusiastic to have the opportunity to help shape public policy on a wide array of issues impacting our state’s workforce, employment opportunities, and economic security for working families.”

In addition, Senator Lewis will serve as the Senate Vice-Chair of the newly formed Marijuana Policy Committee. This position will enable him to continue his leadership in ensuring that marijuana legalization in Massachusetts is implemented effectively and safely.

He will also serve as a member of the following committees: Joint Committee on Education; Joint Committee on Health Care Financing; Joint Committee on Election Laws; and the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.

Column: Time to Tackle Criminal Justice Reform in Massachusetts

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently gained attention in her advocacy for civil rights when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used arcane Senate rules to silence her during the debate over whether to confirm Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General. She was silenced for reading Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter opposing Sessions’ confirmation to a federal judgeship. Many of the same issues for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King advocated are still being debated today.

As a historical reminder, it was in Boston where Martin and Coretta met, he a doctoral candidate at Boston University and she a student at the New England Conservatory. It seems fitting that these two champions of civil rights would meet in Massachusetts, as our state enjoys a historical legacy of being at the forefront of civil rights and human rights. The first woman to legally vote in the American colonies was Lydia Taft of Uxbridge, back in 1756. Massachusetts was one of the first states to abolish slavery in the 1780s. In the middle of the 19th century, Horace Mann championed universal free public education for all children. And, of course, in recent years we were the first state to establish near universal access to healthcare and to recognize same-sex marriage.

Still, there is much progress yet to be made, particularly in the area of criminal justice reform. Consider this shocking statistic here in Massachusetts: people of color make up about 20% of our state’s population, yet almost 80% of those convicted of drug offenses are black or Hispanic, despite the fact that all races abuse drugs at roughly similar levels.

There are a number of criminal justice reform bills that have been introduced in the new legislative session on Beacon Hill that I’m proud to support. These reforms would help address racial injustice, reduce recidivism, improve public safety, lower the taxpayer-funded costs of incarceration, and significantly improve the quality of life in many of our most disadvantaged communities. These bills include:

•    Eliminating or scaling back lengthy and unfair mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
•    Raising the threshold for felony-level theft from $250 to $1,500, as the threshold in Massachusetts is currently the third lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised in three decades. This low threshold has the effect of resulting in penalties far exceeding the crime.
•    Eliminating or lowering various fees, like the $65 per month that ex-prisoners have to pay in parole fees, and which many have great difficulty paying.
•    Reforming our bail system using evidence-based tools so people who pose little or no risk do not continue to be jailed simply because they cannot afford even small bail amounts.
•    Encouraging the diversion of non-violent defendants with substance abuse and/or mental illness to appropriate treatment programs rather than incarceration.
•    Investing in job training and other programs to assist ex-prisoners (and those at high risk of criminal behavior, particularly youth) in finding and retaining employment.

Massachusetts would hardly be the first state to implement these kinds of reforms. States such as Texas, Colorado, and Mississippi have taken steps in recent years to enact exactly these kinds of reforms. Criminal justice reform presents an excellent opportunity for bipartisan solutions.

As Dr. King said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” I believe we must continue the work of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King by tackling today’s civil rights challenge of criminal justice reform.