As head of the largest government agency in Massachusetts, Marylou Sudders epitomizes the growing capacity of social workers to influence policy

Marylou Sudders in the Massachusetts House of Representatives Chamber.

This past January, BC School of Social Work Associate Professor Marylou Sudders was named Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, making her one of the highest ranking social workers in the United States. As secretary, Sudders oversees a $19.4 billion budget and more than 22,000 employees.

“I didn’t think picking Marylou Sudders to be secretary was a particularly big deal,” said Governor Charlie Baker at an event at the State House recognizing Sudders’ new position.

“And the reason I say that, is that I couldn’t imagine picking anyone else. It seemed like the only choice that made sense for the people of the Commonwealth… She’s born for this job. And if she wasn’t born for it, she made herself the right person for this job over the course of her career in the public and private sector.”

Professionally trained as a social worker with an MSW from Boston University, Sudders has dedicated her life to public service and to some of our most vulnerable citizens. She has been a public official, provider executive, advocate and, of course, a Boston College faculty member (she remains a visiting professor at BC Social Work).

In this Q&A, Sudders discusses why a background in social work was the perfect preparation for her current position, some of the major issues she’s addressing in her new role, and the privilege of teaching a next generation of social workers.

You have an MSW, and have led a long and esteemed career in social services. What does your background as a social worker mean in your role as secretary?
Social work is, in many ways, the perfect professional bootcamp to become a secretary with such wide-reaching responsibilities. The Executive Office of Health & Human Services touches the lives of one in four residents. Each and every agency must focus on three very important objectives: health, independence, and resilience. In addition to the work that occurs within an individual agency, it is my strong commitment to ensure that the needs of individuals, families, and communities are comprehensively addressed secretariat wide.

My group work skills help bring people to the table to tackle complex challenges, so that we can collaborate on finding creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. One example: My training has helped immeasurably in my understandings of the inter-relationship between the social determinants of health, including poverty and child abuse, and the lack of healthcare. Having this broad, yet practical, perspective is critical for addressing the kind of huge policy-based questions I deal with on a constant basis.

One unique skill of social work is understanding individuals in the context of their communities. This is particularly important as we attempt to decrease the number of families living in homeless shelters and hotels and to provide housing and social services and support. If the goal was shelter, the Commonwealth has met the goal; if the goal is secure housing and social supports, we need a different approach.

What are some of the major issues you’ve tackled since starting on the job?
As you can imagine, there’s a lot on our table. We must contain the double-digit growth of the Medicaid program and provide the strong benefits that meet the diverse health and long-term care needs of 1.7 million Massachusetts residents. We have started a very public and transparent process with our many stakeholders to make certain that the restructuring of Medicaid is cost effective and high quality. MassHealth must be sustainable. Moving away from a fee-for-service model and towards preventive models of healthcare is the goal.

Similar to other states, Massachusetts is grappling with an opioid epidemic. Three times more people die from opioid deaths than car accidents. I chaired the governor’s 18-member working group and recently released 65 tangible recommendations that span the public health arc of prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery. As part of our work, we held listening sessions across the Commonwealth and heard from more than 1,000 individuals impacted by the crisis. Our recommendations are based on previous reports, academic literature, and the voices of those most impacted by the disease. It’s an epidemic that touches every socio-economic group.

As I wrote (along with the governor and federal HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell) in a recent Op-Ed for the Boston Globe, putting an end to the opioid epidemic will entail coordinated and comprehensive action from federal, state, and local leaders, and it will require multi-faceted efforts in the area of prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery—as well as a dedicated focus on public awareness and education.

Over the next three years, I’m positive that our multi-faceted plan can help to curb addiction and overdoses in our state. The game changer is that we need to view addictions as a chronic medical disease and not as a social failing. We have overused our courts and jails for long-term treatment. This is a public health crisis.

With such a large budget and staff, how do you begin to set priorities and allocate resources? It must be a very different experience from working in a clinic or hospital with clients.
Although the Executive Office of Health and Human Services represents half of state government, the reality is that we cannot solve every social problem. That’s just not feasible for government to do. But it is essential that government partner with community agencies, hospitals, business, philanthropy, academia, elected officials, and the public to bring the best minds together to solve difficult problems. The good news is that we are blessed in Massachusetts with some of the best and the brightest. We have great trainees from our academic institutions, we have high quality healthcare, and our innovation and technology sectors are particularly strong. It’s going to take all of these resources marshaled to meet the needs of individuals and families who come to us for services and supports. I also believe that public employees are incredibly dedicated. Our job, then, is to provide the leadership and the confidence to encourage our line workers to engage in the invaluable work that they do, and help them to treat the individuals who come to the agencies with dignity and respect.

You’ve said that your one regret about taking this job is that it will limit the amount of teaching you’ll be able to do. Talk to us about what teaching has meant to you, and how that experience informs your work going forward.
I have grown to love teaching, and it has been a privilege to be associated with BC Social Work. There is no question in my mind that the caliber of the students here is excellent, that the curriculum that we provide to them is superb, and that the training and field education placements we offer prepare them with the foundational skills and the confidence they’ll need to enter the professional social work community.

My relationship with BC remains strong, and I know it will only continue to grow. As I look to the future, it’s my expectation that the Executive Office of Health and Human Services could be both a training site and an employment site for BC students and alumni. And, just as importantly, it is my hope and belief that I can reach out to the School of Social Work for expertise, support, and guidance as I seek to find solutions to the problems that together we face in the Commonwealth. I know that the door is always open to me and I’m grateful for that.

What advice would you like to impart to the next generation of social workers?
I had been in the private sector for 11 years, which gave me a unique occasion to take stock of what I did as a leader. It gave me the chance to become hopefully a little bit more objective about what the challenges and opportunities inside government are as well.

Even while I was away from government, I continued to serve on public commissions and boards, so that I could really stay attuned to the issues of the day. I have always stepped up to serve because in my heart I am a public servant. I hope that that is one of the messages I was able to instill in my Boston College students—that our mission of service permeates all that we do.

I truly believe that a social work degree can open almost any professional door, and it’s only our inhibitions that prevent us from taking that next step. There’s no greater education to open up a wealth of opportunities.

So, I would expect that, in 10 years, there won’t just be a lone Marylou Sudders who is a cabinet secretary, but there will be a host of social workers who are cabinet secretaries across the United States and beyond. I look forward to that time.

 View more photos chronicling “A Day in the Life” of Secretary Sudders.