An Inside Look at Health Policy in Massachusetts

Graduate students get unique access to state policymakers at the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum’s annual student forum

January 28, 2019

State Sen. Jim Welch addresses the student forum

Over two whirlwind days in January, graduate students from seven Boston-area universities met with senior legislative and state administrative officials, as well as lobbyists and journalists, to get an inside look at how healthcare policy is created and implemented throughout Massachusetts.  

“As states assume greater responsibility for health system management and reform, it’s important that healthcare leaders at all levels understand the unique position state governments hold,” says Massachusetts Health Policy Forum (MHPF) Executive Director Michael Doonan, who’s also the director of the Master of Public Policy program at Heller. “Our goal with the student forum is to enable future health policy leaders to become active participants in the state health policy making process.”

The MHPF, based at Heller, hosts the annual student forum for students in public health, medicine and health policy from Brandeis, Boston University, Harvard, Simmons, Northeastern, Tufts and UMass Boston.

“I wanted to better understand the life cycle of a policy: how it’s prioritized, developed, budgeted for, implemented and evaluated,” says Heller PhD student Ruslan Nikitin, who’s studying how social relationships influence Type 2 diabetes risk. “It’s a truly complex process, and textbook knowledge doesn’t provide you with the depth or nuance.”

Rep. Denise Garlick

This year’s forum started at the Massachusetts State House, where Rep. Denise Garlick, Sen. Jim Welch and staffers shared the challenges of getting a bill passed through both chambers. Garlick spoke at length about her opioid bill, designed to expand access to medication-assisted treatment, which was signed into law in August 2018.

In the afternoon, the students visited the Center for Health Information and Analysis (CHIA), an independent state agency which collects data from state healthcare stakeholders and creates major datasets for policymaking and program oversight. There, they heard its director and other agency leaders, including Heller alum Marissa Woltmann, MPP’13, director of policy and applied research at the Massachusetts Health Connector.

During the evening keynote speech, Marylou Sudders, Massachusetts secretary of Health and Human Services, discussed the challenges of combating the opioid epidemic and providing health care coverage across the state.

“She also talked about how important it was to have a heart for public service,” says Heller PhD student Robert Bohler, who’s studying payment and delivery of substance use disorder treatment. “The people we met, they’re really committed to making a difference. It takes both the brains and the heart to get the job done.”

On the second day, students visited the departments of public health and mental health, where they heard from the commissioners and discussed the social determinants of health. They also heard from the other side as lobbyists and journalists offered their views on the system.

“My favorite sessions were with Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Dan Tsai and Commissioner Joan Mikula for the same reasons: they were open, unrehearsed and transparent,” says Kelley Butler, a medical student and MPH candidate at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. “So often, you get these career politician-type answers to your questions or dry PowerPoints when interacting with people of their stature. It was wildly refreshing to hear them candidly and passionately talk about their work.”

Though the schedule was packed, the forum offered opportunities for networking with the speakers, fellow students and faculty members. Tsai, who directs the Medicaid program for Massachusetts, encouraged the students to talk to him about job opportunities at his office, saying he’d hired a student he met at the forum two years ago.

At the end of the two days, students were excited to put what they learned into action.  

“This forum opened my eyes to the sheer size of the state government, as well as the responsibilities and potential for change held by the elected officials and their staff,” says UMass student Rachel Rudder, who’s studying to become a nurse practitioner. “Though I knew Massachusetts often paves the way for health policy, I did not realize the full extent before hearing from many of the speakers. I’m inspired to become more involved.”

That’s what Doonan wants to hear as the MHPF celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“Whether these students want to become policy makers, researchers or even the head of an agency one day, our hope is that this forum has opened their eyes to the types of personalities and experiences that enable people to succeed in those positions,” he says.

Massachusetts Health Policy Forum Executive Director Michael Doonan opens the student forum
Seven Heller students attended the forum, along with graduate students from six other schools
Students had the opportunity to tour the Massachusetts State House
Heller MBA/MS student Viveka Zawisza asks CHIA Director Ray Campbell a question
Marissa Woltmann, MPP’13, director of policy and applied research at the Massachusetts Health Connector, speaks to students
Dan Tsai, who directs the Medicaid program for Massachusetts, encourages students to apply for positions in his office