BOSTON — Nurse practitioners may soon be cleared to see patients without a doctor’s supervision as the state maneuvers to fill a shortage of medical personnel dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.
A measure approved by the state Senate on Thursday allows state-certified nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, midwives and psychiatric nurse specialists with at least two years of supervised practice to operate independently from physicians.
The changes would be temporary, and the expanded scope of nurse practitioners would expire 90 days after the state of emergency is lifted.
The measure passed on a voice vote, with only a handful of lawmakers in the Senate chambers.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, said the changes are necessary to ease the burden on the state’s health care system as it fights the outbreak.
“We’re in the middle of a public health crisis,” Lovely said. “We need to have as many health care providers as possible on the front lines of fighting this outbreak.”
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said the changes are “both urgent and vital” to bolstering the health care system during the crisis.
“By expanding the ability of trained medical professionals to practice, we tap into tremendous human resources to respond to growing human needs,” Tarr said.
The move is backed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a union that represents 23,000 nurses and health care workers in the state.
Under the changes, the state Board of Registration in Nursing would also be allowed to waive the two-year experience requirement if deemed necessary.
State-certified pharmacists would be allowed to practice at hospitals or health clinics as part of coronavirus response teams under a provision added by Lovely.
Still, it’s not clear whether the measure will make it past the House of Representatives. Some leaders there have questioned whether it is necessary, suggesting that the governor could make the temporary changes by executive order.
Nurse practitioners generally have a master’s degree, advanced training and must pass a state exam. They can prescribe medicine, perform diagnostics and consult patients, but they must be supervised by a physician under current law.
Gov. Charlie Baker has filed similar legislation in the past to remove the state’s restrictions on nurse practitioners, but the proposals have languished in legislative committees amid opposition.
The Massachusetts Medical Society, which represents physicians, has opposed previous versions of the proposal that would make the changes permanent.
But the society, which has acknowledged the need to make sure hospitals have enough medical staff to deal with the virus, isn’t standing in the way of the current proposal.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.