ATLANTA – A Georgia House committee held a passionate debate Thursday on a scaled-down bill to allow people to visit patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities during a public health emergency.
The nation is currently in one such emergency – the COVID-19 pandemic.
The original version of the “right to visit” legislation, House Bill 290, would have prevented these entities from obtaining or renewing their licenses if they had maintained a policy to notify visitors during a “declared public health emergency” away from patients.
The new version, as pointed out by Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, would place more limits on these visits. The changes were made after intensive lobbying by the healthcare industry.
Instead of the more open proposal, the revised bill would allow a patient’s “legal representative” to visit for at least one hour a day, provided that visitor met the facility’s requirements. The representative would be someone named by the patient to make informed decisions about medical care, Setzler told the House’s Human Relations and Aging Committee.
He acknowledged that “there will be people who are mad at me” for changing proposed legislation to put more limits on visits.
Long-term care attendance has been restricted by order of Governor Brian Kemp and in accordance with federal guidelines. These visit restrictions were imposed at the beginning of the COVID pandemic as nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have suffered an awful number of illnesses.
More than 4,000 residents of these Georgia homes have died, roughly a third of the state-confirmed deaths from COVID-19.
But now that nursing home residents are being vaccinated, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman for the State of Kemp has asked to relax its rules and allow an “essential visitor” – usually a family member – to come into the building to see a loved one see.
With long waits to see their family members, “patients simply wither,” Melanie McNeil, the state’s chief long-term care ombudswoman, recently told GHN.
The House Panel is due to vote on the measure next week.
“This could be one of the key actions of the Georgia General Assembly meeting,” said committee chairman Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah.
The bill would also allow an “essential caregiver”, usually a relative, to visit a patient in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, but not in a hospital.
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The Georgia Health Care Association, which represents long-term caregivers, has reservations about the updated legislation.
“While we support the bill sponsor’s intention to facilitate additional visits and bring local residents and families together, the new version of HB 290 still contains provisions that would put the centers at risk of federal failure,” said Devon Barill a spokeswoman for GHCA. “We appreciate the opportunity Chairs Setzler and Petrea have given us to contribute to the debate. We will continue to work with the committee to resolve conflicts between state and federal regulations. ”
Committee members highlighted the potential impact of such visits on hospitals and infection control efforts. Rep. Mary Robichaux, D-Roswell, asked if a hospital would violate the proposed law by banning access to an intensive care unit with COVID patients.
But Rep. Danny Mathis, R-Cochran, spoke of the agony families feel when they don’t see loved ones.
“We have a moral obligation for these people to be with loved ones,” he said.
The legal guardianship rule would help Hartwell’s Gail Manter see her husband Tom in person at the nursing home where he lives.
“Everyone is ready to do what we have to do to get in,” she said.
Tom has Parkinson’s and has been at the facility for two years. Gail visited him daily, but since the pandemic started early last year, those regular trips have ended.
“It is only criminal not to let us see our loved one,” she said on Thursday. “If we have to buy PPE, we buy PPE,” she added, referring to the protective clothing that health care workers wear to limit the spread of infection. She said if the bill were passed she would qualify as both a legal representative and an essential caregiver.
If Setzler’s bill goes into effect, it will come into effect on July 1st.
The original measure would have required hospitals and long-term care facilities to allow patients to have two visitors for up to two hours a day.
The blocking of family visits had consistently negative effects, said Setzler recently.
“This has put an enormous strain on families, this has put an enormous strain on our sickest and most vulnerable citizens, and this has hugely benefited nurses and health professionals who benefit from having family members at their patients’ bedside medical care they provide “, he said.
Andy Miller is the editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.