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A Busy Week for Medical Advocacy

This past week saw several significant meetings and announcements that highlighted the continued advancement of pilot medical certification issues. A particular area of focus was reform in the handling of mental health issues, a subject long advocated by EAA and others in the industry.

EAA’s Aeromedical Advisory Council chair Dr. Steve Leonard and co-chair Dr. John Owen, along with EAA Government Relations Director Tom Charpentier, participated in the FAA’s Aerospace Medical Certification Summit. The Summit brought together FAA medical staff, aerospace medical examiners (AMEs), and representatives of the pilot community.

This year’s summit provided FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup and Deputy Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Brett Wyrick and their staff the opportunity to report on recent updates.

The FAA representatives acknowledged a chronic backlog in processing applications. This was attributed to both a staffing shortage and increasing complexity of medical cases before them. They did note a new system that allows AMEs to directly upload medical documents and new mental health policies that put more decision-making authority in the hands of the AME as positive improvements, along with efforts to mitigate the staffing issues.

EAA’s team used the opportunity to highlight the need for additional transparency in medical standards, further clarity on FAA communications with airmen, and the need for more timely and detailed information on the FAA’s online system for checking application status. Also discussed was the need for continued advancement in the area of the FAA and industry addressing the mental health of pilots and others in our community.

On the latter point, EAA emphasized that in order for pilots to be proactive and forthcoming in seeking help for mental health issues, they must to be confident that they can do so without needless grounding and long certification delays. EAA is advocating for fundamental change in the FAA’s approach to mental health, while encouraging all pilots to get the help they need. The vast majority of cases eventually “get to yes” even with the system’s drawbacks, and early intervention is best (counseling visits in the absence of a medical diagnosis are not legally reportable to the FAA).

For its part, the FAA has implemented several new policies, including new accelerated certification pathways for situational depression, PTSD, and ADHD. They have also recently added Wellbutrin XL and SR to their list of approved antidepressants.

The FAA also released this week the charter for their anticipated Mental Health and Aviation Medical Clearances Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). The objective of the ARC is to “provide a forum for the United States aviation community to discuss and provide recommendations to the FAA that break down the barriers that prevent pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues.” The final recommendations of the ARC are to be submitted no later than March 30, 2024.

Adding to the discussion, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a Pilot Mental Health Summit this week. The Summit brought together the aviation industry, academia, and mental health professionals, as well as representatives from the FAA. Included in the panels of presenters where a number of powerful first-person accounts from individuals who have interacted with medical certification process on mental health cases. A second panel provided an overview from the FAA on their current approach including recent changes. The summit concluded with a discussion of the future of mental health in aviation.

Medical certification is a key part of EAA’s advocacy agenda. We have long expressed concern on the relationship between the flying community and the FAA on mental health, and we are pleased to see the topic receive its due attention.

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