House passes bill to address burnout, mental health of healthcare workers

With a bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives approved the Lorna Breen Act. The bill is named in honor of an emergency doctor who died by suicide in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the mental health needs of doctors and nurses gain more attention, Congress is on the cusp of passing legislation to address burnout and provide more support to healthcare workers.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Lorna Breen Act with an overwhelming bipartisan vote (392-36) Wednesday. The Senate previously passed the bill but the measure goes back to the Senate for final approval before it goes to President Joe Biden for his signature.

The bill is named in honor of Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency department physician who died by suicide early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doctors die by suicide at twice the rate of the general population, said U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., the lead sponsor of the bill in the House.

“The trauma of their experience during COVID and before while treating patients is something we must address head on,” Wild said on the House floor.

Wild said the bill “will finally provide resources and support to our healthcare heroes who face burnout and mental health crisis as a result of their experiences with COVID-19.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, which approved the measure in August. In a post on Twitter, Kaine called it “a big victory for our nation’s health care workers.”

The legislation would authorize $35 million in grants to create programs to address the mental health needs of healthcare workers. It would also provide $10 million to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a public awareness campaign urging healthcare workers to seek help for mental and behavioral health issues.

In addition, the bill would direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop strategies to deal with burnout among healthcare workers.

The Association of American Medical Colleges and a host of other healthcare advocacy organizations have endorsed the legislation.

“There are numerous systemic and other sources for the high levels of stress and burnout that have long plagued health professionals, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating the problem,” the AAMC said in support of the bill. “Yet, stigma, bias, and other barriers can hinder health professionals from seeking and receiving care for new or ongoing mental and behavioral health challenges.”

Breen died by suicide on April 26, 2020. She gave her all caring for the first wave of COVID-19 patients as the virus spread through New York City. She contracted the virus herself, recovered and returned to work. But she became physically and emotionally exhausted during long, grueling days of treating COVID-19 patients.

The Dr. Lorna Breen Foundation, established in her memory, has been pushing for the legislation and the need for healthcare workers to get help when they need it. They are also working to get rid of the misconception that seeking help is a sign of weakness for doctors.

“Lorna had no prior mental health issues (known or suspected), she had no history of depression or anxiety,” the foundation stated on its website. “She was very smart, very funny and had just the right amount of sarcasm.”

The Lorna Breen Act was introduced in 2020 but didn’t get through Congress before the end of the legislative session. This year, it’s passed through both chambers of the House and Senate and appears to be on track to get to the president’s desk.

Jennifer Feist, Breen’s sister, and her husband, J. Corey Feist, co-founded the Lorna Breen Foundation and have made repeated public calls to change the culture of healthcare to spur more doctors and nurses to seek help. In an essay for U.S. News in September 2021, they wrote that Lorna didn’t seek help because she feared she’d lose her job.

“Many don't seek mental health care due to fear of negative consequences in the workplace, including retribution, exclusion, loss of license, or even their job – the same fears felt by Lorna,” they wrote. “This culture must change. And given the ongoing pandemic, we have no time to lose.”

If you need assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255.