HARTFORD — State Sen. Saud Anwar, co-chair of the state’s Public Health Committee, noted numerous challenges that the state must confront in the post-pandemic era. Despite these challenges, the committee successfully passed legislation in the 2023 session, and Anwar expressed more optimism for this year.
Anwar, a native of Pakistan who has been a pulmonary physician since 1998, noted that 18 of 55 bills — or about one-third — passed out of committee last year and were signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont. Those bills included measures to improve the safety of health care providers and patients, increasing access to maternal health services for women, and requiring the Office of Workforce Strategy to develop recommendations to expand the state’s health care workforce.
Anwar, a Democrat representing South Windsor, praised Lamont’s leadership during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, saying he did a “phenomenal job.” The 56-year-old also said many of the proposals he championed might not have advanced without the administration’s strong support.
“He [Lamont] is very much a supporter of our committee,” Anwar said. “He has made [health] a priority. The cost of medications [going down] has been a very important accomplishment, for example.”
Anwar recently spoke about the ups and downs of the 2023 legislative session and his hopes for the 2024 session, which begins Feb. 7. He also addressed topics ranging from the shortage of mental health providers to his support of a medical aid in dying bill, which is expected to come up for a vote in the Public Health Committee this year.
Anwar said enhancing the safety of health care workers in outpatient settings is a top priority this year. While acknowledging legislative efforts for inpatient settings, he emphasized an urgency, citing the recent killing of visiting nurse Joyce Grayson in Willimantic.
The state Department of Public Health said there were 21 incidents of violence against nursing staff in 2022.
“The more you look at that case [of Grayson], the more you realize that this was all preventable at so many levels,” Anwar said.
After interacting with health care workers and nurses, he said the committee is determined to tighten the loopholes regarding who has information on certain patients.
“As it is now, when a patient is referred, the information about that patient is not as easily accessible to the home care workers and the outpatient workers,” said Anwar, who was named to the 38-member Public Health Committee in 2019. “If somebody has a behavioral health issue, or who has been an individual who would pose a threat to health care workers, that information is not even available to the health care workers. It’s very basic and it does not cost anything. We just need to make it a priority.”
Anwar said there also needs to be a “feedback loop for that person to be able to say that this place is not safe for whatever reason. It could be as simple as a pet being aggressive, or even an individual or family members being aggressive. There needs to be a loop on that assessment so that, for example, people can go as pairs in situations where it is needed. We, as a state, need to provide care to all of our citizens, but we want to make sure that those providing the care are safe.”
Anwar said the 2023 session was successful on several fronts, including the passage of a law aimed at improving the safety of health care providers and patients.
That bill, which Lamont signed into law on June 29, mandates that the DPH develop a marketing campaign and make monthly public service announcements on its website and social media accounts, as well as on television and radio, regarding the mistreatment of health care providers and encouraging public civility in health care settings. In addition, the law calls for the establishment of a hospital security grant program aimed at securing hospital entrances and public spaces to ensure the safety of workers and patients.
Anwar also praised the passage of Senate Bill 9, which aims to provide health and wellness services for residents, among other things. The bill requires OWS to convene a working group to develop recommendations to expand the state’s health care workforce; requires the education commissioner to use an existing plan to promote health care careers and provide health care job shadowing and internship experiences; and requires public higher education institutions to consider any licensed health care provider with at least 10 years of clinical experience to be qualified for an adjunct faculty position.
Many bills passed through the Public Health Committee with the support of both parties, Anwar said.
“We very much have Republican support [on most measures],” Anwar said. “We are talking about the health and well-being of our citizens, and we work collaboratively together. We sit down and look at them [proposed bills] and come up with a product that everybody would agree with.”
Anwar has strong opinions on for-profit health care systems coming into the state and on a medical aid-in-dying bill that’s expected to, once again, be heard in the state Legislature.
He said he’s opposed to private equity businesses — singling out Prospect Medical Holdings, Inc. — doing business in the state. Prospect Medical owns Manchester Memorial Hospital, Rockville General Hospital and Waterbury Hospital. In a deal with Prospect, Yale New Haven Health is attempting to acquire those hospitals; that deal is pending.
“I want them to leave our state,” Anwar said, arguing that their primary purpose is to make money, not take care of patients. “They actually take the most experienced and trained individuals and bring in less trained people to manage the patients.”
Lauresha Xhihani and Nina Kruse, spokespeople for the Prospect Medical Holdings team in Connecticut, did not respond to requests for comment.
Anwar also said he’s committed to get a medical aid-in-dying bill passed this year. A similar bill passed out of the Public Health Committee in 2022 and 2023, but did not make it out of the Judiciary Committee.
The provisions of the 2023 bill, which is expected to be similar to the bill proposed this session, states that only adults ages 21 or older that are terminally ill with six months or less to live can take a mix of prescribed medications to end their life. Other provisions say the individual must be mentally capable of making the decision and must be able to self-administer the medication.
“When I first learned about this, my initial reaction was that this does not sound OK, because I am hardwired to try and protect people and protect their lives and enhance their lives,” Anwar said. “But it’s also a reality that we are not going to be here forever; each and every one of us will pass sooner or later. Many individuals want to make sure that they are comfortable. … In those circumstances [end of life], there should be very specific protections in place and … [the bill does that].”
During the height of the pandemic, the state Legislature gave special permission requiring equal reimbursement for medical and mental health providers, and allowed out-of-state mental health providers to see patients in the state remotely. The equal reimbursement provision ends in June, but Anwar said he favors extending the provision permanently, “with the restriction that the person has to be affiliated with a Connecticut entity.”
Anwar said another public health issue involves the shortage of mental health providers in Connecticut.
“The reality now is that if somebody has a child with behavioral health issues and mental health issues, there is going to be a long waiting time,” he said. “That’s not good; there should be no waiting time.”
Anwar said one possible solution to the shortage comes from a comprehensive bill passed in 2022 regarding children’s mental health.
“Our hope is, that when it is implemented, that if there is a child anywhere in crisis, that somebody will be able to come to that child within a half an hour. That’s our goal,” he said.