COVID-19 shows that Minnesota should tap its immigrant health workers

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year it revealed a couple of major flaws in Minnesota’s health care system.

One was the moratorium on building new hospitals. Without this, we could reasonably expect to have greater capacity – indeed, its entire purpose is to restrict capacity – and that would have seen us a little less desperate for new beds.

Another was that Minnesota is one of handful of states not to be in the national Nurse Licensure Compact. This makes it harder for healthcare professionals from elsewhere in the United States to work here. The folly of this was so obvious that, after we called on him to do so, Gov. Walz signed an order allowing healthcare workers licensed in other states to work in Minnesota.

These barriers do not exist to protect the consumer, despite what their proponents might claim. The only beneficiaries of the moratorium are existing hospitals. The only beneficiaries of Minnesota staying out of the Nurse Licensure Compact are those already licensed to practice here. Crudely put, they are about protecting the market share of insiders.

And when we look for ways we can expand capacity by doing away with such self-serving regulations, we can also look to Minnesota’s reservoir of immigrant and refugee physicians, nurses, and health-care technicians.

There are 1.5 million immigrants already employed in the United States’ health-care system as doctors, registered nurses, and pharmacists, but, last year, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) found:

…another 263,000 immigrants and refugees with undergraduate degrees in health-related fields [who] are either relegated to low-paying jobs that require significantly less education or are out of work…these immigrants represent a potentially important source of staff for the U.S. health corps. And because these immigrants tend to be younger than their U.S.-born counterparts, they represent an important pool of responders to a disease that is particularly dangerous for those 60 and older.

The MPI estimates that in 2017 there were 1,000 United States educated and 2,000 foreign educated immigrants in Minnesota “Whose Health-Related Undergraduate Degrees Are Not Fully Utilized.”

Last year, Sahan Journal told the story of one:

Amewoke Adamaley graduated from medical school seven years ago and has been in the health care sector ever since. 

But he isn’t working as the doctor he’s trained to be. Instead, he’s a nursing assistant at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota’s east bank hospital. That’s because Adamaley, who earned his medical degree from Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, has a tougher pathway to practicing medicine in the U.S. than doctors who were trained here. 

To enable these people to do the work they were trained to do, the MPI suggests that:

States could speed up the certification process by allowing immigrant health-care professionals who pass all requirements except the final exam to work under supervision, or they could extend short-term, provisional approval for a limited set of tasks. The data presented here indicate that workers with nursing training could represent a promising target group. These nurses could be employed in assisting with testing for the virus. 

I’ve written before about the valuable contribution skilled immigrants can make to our state’s economy. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, trained healthcare professionals exemplify this. The state government should be working to remove whatever obstacles stand in the way of them getting to work.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.