Georgia Guardsmen clean nursing homes

Spc. Hunter Sorenson often tells residents he is there killing a bug when asked why the Guardsmen are disinfecting the Condor Health Lafayette nursing home in Fayetteville.

ATLANTA — House lawmakers took part in a lengthy debate Thursday on legislation that would restrict nursing homes and hospitals from denying visitation rights during public health emergencies.

House Bill 290, or the "Right to Visit Act," would allow limited access to hospitals and nursing homes for individuals who make or help make medical decisions for ill family members despite an ongoing pandemic or other health emergency.

Republican Rep. Ed Setzler is the sponsor of the measure that has been heard by lawmakers for two weeks in a row without a vote.

Nursing homes and hospitals were shuttered to all patient visitors for nearly a year after the COVID-19 outbreak devastated health systems and tore through long-term care facilities. The intense infection control effort to prevent coronavirus spread within medical settings has kept families separated from their vulnerable loved ones.

The bill, Setzler said, would require hospitals to allow a patient’s representative — who is involved in medical decision-making — access to that patient for a minimum of one hour per day if the patient’s stay is longer than 12 hours.

In long-term care facilities, the representative would be permitted to see a loved one for two hours a day, if the stay is longer than 24 hours.

Only individuals who assist with medical decision-making would be exempt from a facility’s visitation restrictions — other loved ones would still not be permitted inside.

Hospitals and long-term facilities would have the ability to mandate conditions for a visitor entering the hospital — whether they are required to be tested, wear PPE or other safety stipulations instituted at their discretion.

If visitors feel they have been unjustly denied access by a facility, they could file a civil suit.

"This may well be the most important bill we passed this legislative session,” said Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, House human relations and aging chairman.

Even as the bill sponsor, Setzler said he isn’t completely happy with the restrictive visitation laid out in the most recent version and struggled with limiting a family’s right to see their loved one.

“This isn’t letting visitors in, this is the decision-maker, who’s making decisions for the person or with the person,” he said. “Is the need for having that disappear under emergency circumstances? Even under the most severe emergency conditions in the hospital, the ability to make decisions for patients and with patients exists whether there’s an emergency declaration or not.”

Some lawmakers worry hospitals would not be able to create a safe environment for themselves and other patients in emergency situations if visitors were allowed in and out.

Democrat Rep. Mary Robichaux who has worked in health care management for more than three decades, voiced concern that hospitals would not be able to institute effective infection disease control measures under the bill.

“Are you saying a hospital would be violating this law if they did not allow the representative family member of that patient to go and sit in a COIVD ICU unit for an hour every day?” she asked.

Under the bill, nursing homes would have more visitation access than hospitals because of the extended living setting. Long-term care facilities in Georgia have been ravaged by the virus and their residents make up nearly a third of all COVID-19-related deaths in the state.

Valdosta Republican John LaHood, who owns several nursing homes in South Georgia, expressed the support of the measure from the Georgia Senior Living Association.

“This year I have seen lots and lots of devastation because of separation — families being separated,” he said. “... There’s good reason the separation needed to happen at the beginning of the pandemic, now we know more. None of us have had this experience in our lifetimes, so moving forward, we must enact policy to make sure these families aren’t separated for this length of time again.”

Petrea dismissed committee members without allowing a vote on the bill, but said the measure would be taken up again Feb. 24.

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