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Laws shielding healthcare professionals seeking mental health services could lead to protections in senior living

Although new laws in Georgia that create so-called safe-haven programs to protect healthcare professionals who seek mental health services are geared mainly toward physicians and nurses, backers say that the laws could lay the groundwork for future legislation that applies to senior living workers.

The stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the creation of the Georgia Resilience Innovation Team, which sought to protect healthcare workers’ participation in employer-sponsored wellness programs. Their efforts led to the recent passage of two bills guaranteeing privacy for Georgia healthcare workers who seek mental health services.

House Bill 1046 was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on April 23 and went into effect May 1. The law focuses on helping nurses with burnout, career fatigue and mental health stressors.

HB 455 was designed to replicate SafeHaven programs in other states, focusing on protecting the privacy of physicians, pharmacists and nurses. Signed on April 30 by Kemp, that law goes into effect July 1. 

The burnout, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues experienced by healthcare workers can occur just as easily in the workers in the senior living industry if not addressed, Catie Ramp, president and CEO of the Georgia Senior Living Association, told McKnight’s Senior Living. Although the benefit of both bills will likely apply mostly to physicians, she said there is potential to apply the same protections to direct care workers through future legislation.

“GSLA values the mental health of Georgia senior living residents and their caretakers and clinicians,” Ramp said. “We desire to continue promoting the quality of life for Georgia seniors in all aspects of care.”

The Georgia Health Care Association / Georgia Center for Assisted Living and LeadingAge Georgia similarly said they support efforts that “encourage healthcare professionals to prioritize self-care and wellness as this is essential to a resilient workforce.”

Applications across the broader healthcare workforce

State Rep. John LaHood (R-Valdosta), a third-generation owner / operator of independent living, assisted living and memory care communities, was one of the sponsors of HB 455. He said that although the legislation is physician-centric in nature and does not apply to senior living, “the same concept could and should be applied to a broader scope of the healthcare workforce.”

“These are great concepts that we could potentially build on to bring a greater impact to the senior living workforce,” LaHood, who also serves as GSLA’s government affairs chair, told McKnight’s Senior Living, adding that the bill would help remove barriers to seeking mental health support services, which will ultimately reduce workforce stress and improve clinician well-being and overall care provided. 

In talking points about HB 455 LaHood shared, he noted that although resources are available to support healthcare workers experiencing burnout and other mental health issues, a stigma persists about seeking treatment for fear that it will adversely affect their jobs. 

State medical boards around the country began examining the regulatory requirements seen as barriers to treatment following calls from the National Academy of Medicine and the US Surgeon General to address the issues. In Georgia, that examination included requirements to disclose a history of mental health treatments on licensing applications.

The Georgia law is modeled after the SafeHaven support/treatment program established in 2020 by the Medical Society of Virginia to protect the confidentiality of physicians, physician assistants, nurses and pharmacists. That law protects information and communications originating in SafeHaven as privileged, meaning that it cannot be disclosed in a legal proceeding unless ordered by a judge in “extraordinary circumstances.”

Similar bills have passed in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, South Dakota and West Virginia specifically intended to protect the confidentiality of physicians seeking help with career fatigue and wellness. North Carolina and Mississippi also changed their licensure questions to protect physician confidentiality.

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