COVID-19 exposed a variety of problems within our healthcare system, but perhaps none more dramatically than the undue burden borne by our 22 million healthcare professionals. These issues—from severe pay inequity to a lack of mental health resources; from on-the-job safety challenges to unmanageable patient staffing ratios—predate the pandemic and, unfortunately, will only intensify in the absence of federal intervention. In fact, the Surgeon General just issued a formal advisory focused on “the long-standing crisis of burnout, exhaustion, and moral distress across the health community.” Likewise, the National Academy of Medicine recently noted that “to prevent a dissolution of the health professions, and to ensure a strong and interconnected health care ecosystem, collective action is urgently needed.”
In February 2022, Congress took an important first step with the passage of the Lorna Breen Act. This law—named for Dr. Lorna Breen, a New York City emergency room physician who tragically died by suicide in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic—seeks to improve access to mental health assistance for healthcare professionals. We need to build on this important work by rapidly developing more comprehensive legislation.
At FIGS, we are fortunate to have over 2 million healthcare professionals as customers—we call them “Awesome Humans” because they are the very best among us. To that end, we are advocating for the development of an Awesome Humans Bill that supports healthcare professionals and ensures their ability to deliver the care our society needs.
Such a bill would have 4 main pillars:
- Workplace safety: it would establish reasonable nurse-to-patient ratios like those that already exist in California, include sensible limits on the number of hours healthcare professionals have to work, reduce unnecessary administrative burdens that add countless hours and stress while distracting from patient care, and provide physical security to ensure healthcare workers are safe at all times.
- Pay: it would level the significant pay disparities that exist, including at large medical institutions where the need is greatest and the pay is lowest, provide for expanded loan repayment initiatives like the National Health Service Corps, and ensure hazard compensation to frontline workers during public health emergencies.
- Mental Health: it would build on the Lorna Breen Act by ensuring that healthcare workers have access to mental health services and that they never are penalized or stigmatized for using those services.
- Grow the workforce: It would significantly grow the training pipeline to bring more people into the healthcare workforce.
There is no denying the extent of the challenge our healthcare workforce faces. There was a significant shortage of healthcare workers before the pandemic, and the acceleration of these problems is creating a risk to them that our health system—and our society—is not prepared to handle.
The Surgeon General is right: “We owe health workers far more than our gratitude. We owe them an urgent debt of action.” It is within Congress’ power to address this emergency. It’s simply a question of whether they have the will.