Panel votes to make Georgia hospitals, nursing homes allow visitors even during pandemic

House Science and Technology Chairman Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, is the sponsor of House Bill 290. The measure, which cleared the House Human Relations and Aging Committee on Monday, would require health care facilities to allow at least one person to have access to a patient for at least one hour a day and bar the governor from imposing any limitations — including during a health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
House Science and Technology Chairman Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, is the sponsor of House Bill 290. The measure, which cleared the House Human Relations and Aging Committee on Monday, would require health care facilities to allow at least one person to have access to a patient for at least one hour a day and bar the governor from imposing any limitations — including during a health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

A state House panel voted Monday to make hospitals and nursing homes allow visitors at facilities despite concerns it could spread the COVID-19 virus.

The House Human Relations and Aging Committee approved a measure that would require health care facilities to allow at least one person to have access to a patient for at least one hour a day and bar the governor from imposing any limitations — including during a health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill passed on a 12-6 vote.

“What this bill is fundamentally about is patient representation — having a representative that can act with them or on their behalf if needed,” said House Science and Technology Chairman Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who sponsored the bill.

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 creates a “legal representative” who can visit daily with a patient.

Setzler said allowing a “legal representative” to visit with a patient ensures that patient is getting the best care possible.

“Having a representative to make the core decisions about the care someone is going to provide is as essential as the person that wheels in the lunch or cleans the bedpan or that replaces the IV,” Setzler said. “Those things are all essential delivery of care.”

The bill went through various revisions and six hours of hearings over the past three weeks.

Opponents have said that they were concerned that allowing an additional person into health care facilities no matter the circumstances — such as during a health emergency — could further exacerbate the problem.

“I still have concerns about the inability of hospitals and facilities to make exceptions in cases where we do have infectious disease outbreaks, such as Ebola,” said state Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta.

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. They 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.

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