Provider groups, bipartisan lawmakers rally around bills supporting healthcare worker safety, mental well-being

Provider groups and their legislative allies took to the field this week to drum up more support for bills designed to protect the healthcare workforce’s physical and mental well-being.

Tuesday, the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) co-hosted a briefing to support the Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act.

It included a panel of executives from Jefferson Health, WVU Medicine and other provider organizations. Per its hosts, the briefing drew a “standing room only crowd” of almost 100 House and Senate staff whom bill sponsors and panelists hoped to sway.

“The SAVE Act would make assaulting a healthcare worker a federal crime and gives grants for tailored solutions for protection,” Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania, one of the act’s sponsors, reportedly said in a statement opening the session. “Let’s step up and protect healthcare workers.”

“Simply put, the status quo is unacceptable,” Rep. Larry Bucshon, M.D., R-Indiana, also a sponsor, told attendees.

An ACEP member survey from late 2022 outlined a rising portion of physicians who said they had witnessed violent incidents in emergency departments. More recent months have seen high-profile health systems adopt new security infrastructure or hire experts to protect employees in the face of rising incident reports and confiscated weapons.

Panelists at the briefing reportedly told Capitol Hill staff that healthcare worker safety protections would help combat labor shortages affecting providers across the country. Falling short on their safety could also translate to worse care and outcomes for the patients they serve, they said.

“We can’t be the safety net without feeling safe ourselves,” Aisha Terry, M.D., president of ACEP, said. “This is not a one-off. This is a daily situation in emergency departments across the country.”

Tuesday’s hearing came about a week after nine healthcare provider organizations, including AHA, America’s Essential Hospitals and the Association of American Medical Colleges, penned letters to the SAVE Act’s House and Senate sponsors in support of the legislation. They wrote that attacks against healthcare workers have “increased markedly in recent years” and “consume scarce hospital and health system resources, which in turn could impact the care available for other patients.”

Outside of the SAVE Act briefing, bipartisan legislators from both chambers of Congress took a step to extend a law focused on the mental health and wellness of healthcare workers.

The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act passed in early 2022 has directed more than $100 million in funding toward mental healthcare for providers who, broadly, have reported elevated levels of burnout and stress since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though that funding is slated to expire at the end of 2024, the reauthorization act introduced Tuesday would extend the grant programs another five years.

“Our healthcare providers make countless sacrifices to care for us, and we owe it to them to provide them with the mental health care and resources they need,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, who co-introduced the Senate version of the bill, said in a statement. “This bill will build on the progress the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act made and ensure we are continuing to do what we can to prevent burnout, protect the well-being of our healthcare workforce, address shortages in the field, and help Virginians get high-quality care.”

The grant programs that would be reauthorized support training programs for schools focused on strategies to prevent suicide, burnout, mental health conditions and substance use disorder as well as similar employee education and treatments for professional and healthcare organizations. It also funds a national awareness campaign that helps hospital and health system leadership implement evidence-based practices for reducing worker burnout.

The reauthorization act is supported by more than 40 healthcare professional organizations, provider groups, life sciences companies and others.

A pre-pandemic study from the National Academy of Medicine reported signs of burnout among 35% to 45% of nurses and 40% to 60% of medical students. Survey data released last fall by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that feelings of burnout, stress, anxiety and depression have all increased in the last couple of years, a trend tied to an uptick in harassment.