After a long and emotional debate, lawmakers in the Georgia House passed a bill Monday that would require hospitals and long-term care facilities to allow visitors during a public health emergency.
The bill, authored by Acworth Republican Rep. Ed Setzler, applies to essential caregivers, people designated by the patient to assist with care, as well as legal representatives who are authorized by the patient to make decisions about their care. Hospitals and long-term care facilities would be forced to allow essential caregivers to have contact with the patient for at least two hours per day, and legal representatives would get at least one hour per day.
Facilities could set restrictions on the manner and safety protocol surrounding meetings. It explicitly prevents the governor from limiting this visitation under an emergency order.
“This is not a visitation bill, and those who are watching this around the state of Georgia, I hope I don’t disappoint people,” Setzler said. “This does nothing to enhance the ability of Sunday school members to come and bring pound cakes to the hospital or the long-term care setting.
“It’s not about visitors, it’s about patients’ rights,” he added. “It gives the patient the right to have their next of kin at their bedside to help them make critical decisions in the delivery of care.”
The bill is scaled back from its original version, which would have compelled facilities to adopt broader in-person visitation rules. The House passed the revised legislation 113-57, sending it to the Senate.
Hospitals in areas with high rates of COVID-19 transmission have tightened visitation restrictions to slow the spread of the disease, sometimes leading to heartbreaking stories of loved ones saying their final goodbyes over a video stream.
House Speaker David Ralston shared some of those stories from constituents, urging members to support the bill in a rare speech from the well.
“I’m here to speak for a young husband who called me last summer and said, ‘Can you help me get in to see my wife at a hospital because she’s dying,’” he said. “Well it sounded easy enough, I thought of all people, maybe I can do that. I couldn’t do that. He said goodbye on FaceTime. I’m here for a friend of mine who said goodbye to his mother through a hospital window while he and his family stood on a helipad outside because they couldn’t say goodbye in person.”
Rep. Bonnie Rich recalled her hospitalization with a serious illness last year that she believed for a time would take her life. Fighting back emotion, she described how she dictated to her husband her final messages to deliver to each of their children.
“People have things that they need to say,” the Suwanee Republican said. “Things need to be said. What kind of society denies this? How many people have died over this last year needing to say things to their loved ones but were denied the opportunity? How many people have suffered physically and emotionally alone, wanting a loved one by their side to comfort them?”
Some medical and nursing home industry representatives say forcing medical facilities to accept increased risk of spreading diseases like COVID-19 is bad public policy.
Some House Democrats echoed those concerns.
“We can all agree this is a feel-good, tug-at-your-heartstrings bill,” said Riverdale Democrat Rep. Debra Bazemore. “I cannot imagine one of my loved ones in the hospital, nursing home, a long-term care facility during a pandemic and not being able to visit them. However, I do trust the medical professionals when they warn that in order to keep our loved ones and others safe, healthy and alive, we will have to endure some precautions.”
Roswell Democratic Rep. Mary Robichaux, who works in health care management, described how she sat in the parking lot and helped make medical decisions for her father while he was hospitalized and could not accept visitors. Still, she called the bill short-sighted.
“This body cannot know what the next public health emergency might be,” she said. “Could it be a disease more like ebola, which can be transmitted by contact through a simple abrasion on your skin or a virus transmitted through some other mechanism? We just don’t know.”
Rep. Erick Allen, a Democrat from south Cobb, said he was hospitalized last year and had to wait six days before he could see a loved one, but he cannot support the bill because it takes power away from hospitals and gives it to the Legislature.
“If this bill were just about long-term care facilities, I would likely be OK voting yes, but it’s not,” he said. “This bill forces hospitals and physicians to go against the vital tenet of their practice, ‘first, do no harm,’ and instead says ‘first, listen to the state.’ This bill requires that a hospital in the face of a medical emergency ignore (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance, and even an executive order.”
Allen said the bill puts essential medical workers at risk and could open hospitals up to lawsuits if loved ones do not agree with the restrictions they put in place on visits.