Georgia House votes to allow visitors at hospitals, nursing homes

Sisters Clarece Jones, right, and Betty Crowder, third from right, visit their brother Johnny Simmons, left, with their mother, Lucille Simmons, Thursday at Westbury Medical Care and Rehab in Jackson. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Sisters Clarece Jones, right, and Betty Crowder, third from right, visit their brother Johnny Simmons, left, with their mother, Lucille Simmons, Thursday at Westbury Medical Care and Rehab in Jackson. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The Georgia House on Monday passed legislation that would require the state’s hospitals and nursing homes to allow visitors inside, even if there is a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Science and Technology Chairman Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said allowing a “legal representative” to visit with a patient ensures that patients are getting the best care possible. The House passed the bill 113-57.

House Bill 290 has morphed since it was first introduced last month from a bill that stopped health care facilities from banning visitors from seeing sick loved ones during a health emergency to legislation that would create a “legal representative” who can visit daily with a patient.

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The bill went through various revisions and six hours of hearings over the past month, including emotional testimony from Georgians who have not been able to touch their elderly or chronically sick loved ones in nearly a year.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, was emotional as he spoke in support of the measure, recounting instances where people he knew were unable to visit with their loved ones in their last days.

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,” he said. “You’ve got to give voice to those that may not give us campaign contributions, that may not be in power but they’re Georgians.”

Opponents have said that they are concerned that allowing additional people into health care facilities no matter the circumstances could further exacerbate the problem during a pandemic.

State Rep. Debra Bazemore, D-Riverdale, called the legislation a “feel-good, tug-at-your-heartstrings bill” that wasn’t good public policy.

“I cannot imagine one of my loved ones in a hospital nursing home or long-term care facility during a pandemic and not being able to visit them,” Bazemore said. “However, I do trust the medical professionals when they warn that in order to keep our loved ones safe, healthy and alive, we will have to endure some precautions.”

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HB 290 would require health care facilities where a patient is staying for more than 12 hours to allow a “legal representative” — defined as someone at least 21 years old and designated as someone who can act on behalf of the patient — to be at the patient’s bedside at least one hour per day. The legal representative would be allowed at hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Long-term care facilities would be required to allow two “essential caregivers” — defined as someone who is at least 18 years old and assists with the patient’s needs — access to the patient for at least two hours per day. Health care facilities would have to establish separate policies for legal representatives, essential caregivers and visitors.

In both cases, the representative could be family members.

The bill would prevent anyone from suing a health care facility if he or she got sick or was harmed because the hospital or nursing home allowed patients to receive visitors. It would also allow a patient to sue a health care facility that banned guests.

If approved, HB 290 will take effect July 1. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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