The federal government’s spending bill and the newly passed coronavirus relief program were a vehicle for seemingly all political priorities under the dome of the Capitol. It included landmark climate change legislation, a long-desired deal to end surprise medical billing, and billions of dollars for everything from Amtrak to vaccine delivery and relief from coronavirus-related funeral costs.
But despite 6,000 pages and $ 2.3 trillion in taxpayer dollars – including $ 900 billion for COVID relief – a remarkable article was left on the cutting room floor. At the last minute, legislation that would have earmarked just $ 3 million in funding for a program to tackle the dramatic worsening rates of burnout and mental illness among frontline healthcare workers – which are under unprecedented pressure due to the pandemic – has been abandoned. the text. And now each side is blaming the other.
The bill is entitled The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. Its namesake, Lorna Breen, is a tragic example of the pandemic’s toll on these workers. A longtime doctor in the New York City emergency room, Breen died by suicide in April as the virus exploded in the city and overwhelmed doctors and nurses treating the sick and dying. As the pandemic continued nationwide, it “brought the well-being of physicians to a critical point,” wrote the president of the American Medical Association in September.
Introduced in July by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate, the bill had broad support on and off Capitol Hill. Almost all of the country’s major healthcare and medical groups, including major groups representing doctors, nurses, hospitals and emergency room doctors, had approved the legislation. It is rare for these groups, which often compete with each other on policy issues, to be on the same page on a bill.
“Everyone is in favor,” said Corey Feist, Breen’s brother-in-law and co-founder of the Dr. Breen Heroes Foundation, an advocacy organization created in his honor. “It tells me that we’re on to something, that we’re going in the right direction.
Advocates were hoping to include the bill as part of another set of coronavirus relief laws or, failing that, year-end spending legislation that was due to pass. In the end, the leaders of Congress combined the two. The bills were passed on Sunday after weeks of marathon negotiations, only to meet President Donald Trump’s 11th hour threat on Tuesday to derail the entire package.
The package adopted by Congress contains several important provisions aimed at strengthening frontline healthcare workers. There is $ 8 billion to speed up vaccine delivery, for example, which will protect healthcare professionals. The bill also aims to address the wider rise in depression, anxiety and mental illness during the pandemic by providing $ 4.25 billion for mental health and addiction initiatives and $ 50 million dollars for suicide prevention programs.
But as they combed through the text of the bill, supporters of the Breen Act were disappointed to find that, in a bill filled with campaign elements, big and small, the relatively smaller proposal to spend $ 1 million a year, over the next three years, to strengthen the frontline health workers were missing. But understanding why is not easy.
“We pushed for inclusion of the bill. He was on the table until the end of the process, ”said a Democratic staff member, speaking anonymously to discuss the process frankly. “Initially we were hoping it would be included and we were disappointed to find that it was not in the final package.”
Following, other Democrats have singled out the GOP for its failure to ensure the inclusion of the Breen Law in year-end COVID legislation. A senior Democratic official told the Daily Beast that Republican Senate lawmakers insisted on “weakening him too severely” for negotiations taking place at committee level. Another aide said that “Democrats have offered [the bill] a number of times but it was not accepted by Republicans.
GOP staff from the Senate Health, Work and Pensions Committee – from which the Breen Act originated – and the Senate Appropriations Committee, which was at the heart of the funding discussions, did not respond to Daily Beast requests for comment. A senior GOP aide said the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was not involved in discussions on the Breen Act.
The Breen Act would establish a government grant program to train health professionals in suicide prevention, burnout reduction and drug addiction strategies. It would prioritize these subsidies in areas hardest hit by COVID-19.
Feist said the legislation is a “first of its kind” approach to improving mental health issues among healthcare professionals.
And the legislation would also commission a comprehensive study into the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of frontline medical workers and a report to Congress. It would be the first such study commissioned by the federal government. So far, the only real source of data on the topic of health worker burnout in the pandemic comes from surveys commissioned by nonprofits and businesses and academic journals.
Although research has long shown that healthcare professionals die by suicide at higher rates than people in most other professions, advocates believe the emergence and endurance of COVID has made it even more urgent. understanding of the phenomenon in order to be able to remedy it.
“Even though the problem predated the pandemic, the pandemic shed light on it,” Feist told The Daily Beast. “Then it amplified the need.” He expressed confidence that the bill will remain viable and will be passed shortly after the new Congress meets in January.
“It will be important that this is adopted at the start of the next Congress and becomes effective very quickly,” Feist said.
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