ATLANTA — State House lawmakers took part in a lengthy debate Thursday on legislation that would restrict nursing homes and hospitals from denying some 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 of Acworth is the sponsor of the measure that has been heard by lawmakers for two weeks in a row without a vote.
Some nursing homes and hospitals have been closed to all patient visitors for nearly a year as the COVID-19 outbreak has devastated some health systems and long-term care facilities. Intense infection control efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within medical settings have kept many 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 a day if the patient’s stay is longer than 12 hours.
In long-term care facilities, a 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.
Hospitals and long-term care facilities would have the ability to mandate the conditions for a visitor entering the facility — whether the person is required to be tested or wear personal protective equipment or meet other safety stipulations.
If visitors believe they have been unjustly denied access by a facility, they could file a civil lawsuit.
"This may well be the most important bill we pass this legislative session,” said Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, House Human Relations and Aging Committee chairman.
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. “Does 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 will not be able to create a safe environment in emergency situations if visitors are allowed to go in and out.
Democratic Rep. Mary Robichaux of Roswell, who has worked in healthcare 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 COVID ICU unit for an hour every day?” she asked.
Under the bill, nursing homes would allow more visitation access than hospitals because of the extended living setting. Some long-term care facilities in Georgia have been ravaged by the virus, and long-term care facility residents make up nearly a third of all COVID-19-related deaths in the state.
Republican Rep. John LaHood of Valdosta, who owns several nursing homes in South Georgia, expressed support for 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 the committee members without allowing a vote on the bill, but said the measure will be taken up again Wednesday.
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.