Congress Spent $900 Billion on COVID Relief but Cut $3 Million to Address Health Care Worker Mental Illness


The just-passed federal government spending bill and coronavirus relief package was a vehicle for seemingly every policy priority under the Capitol dome. It included landmark legislation on climate change, a long-desired deal to end surprise medical billing, and billions of dollars for everything from Amtrak to vaccine distribution and coronavirus-related funeral expense relief.

But despite coming in at 6,000 pages and $2.3 trillion in taxpayer dollars—$900 billion of which was for COVID relief—a conspicuous item was left on the cutting room floor. At the last minute, legislation that would have set aside a mere $3 million in funding for a program to address the dramatically worsening rates of burnout and mental illness among frontline health care workers—who are under unprecedented strain because of the pandemic—was dropped from the text. And now each side is blaming the other.

The bill is titled The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. Its namesake, Lorna Breen, is a tragic example of the pandemic’s toll on such workers. A longtime New York City emergency room doctor, Breen died by suicide in April as the virus surged in the city and overwhelmed doctors and nurses treating the sick and dying. As the pandemic has dragged on nationally, it has “brought physician wellness to a crisis 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 legislation had widespread backing on Capitol Hill and off it. Nearly every major health care and medical group in the country, including the top groups representing doctors, nurses, hospitals, and emergency room physicians, had endorsed the legislation. For these groups, which often compete with one another on policy matters, to be on the same page on a bill is rare.

“Everyone is supportive,” said Corey Feist, Breen’s brother-in-law and co-founder of the Dr. Breen Heroes Foundation, an advocacy organization set up in her honor. “It tells me we’re onto something, we’re headed in the right direction.”



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