Nurse in ICU

The reduced bill now basically requires only that hospitals have visitor policies that meet federal guidelines.

Credit: Georgia Health News/Stock photo

A Senate committee has gutted legislation that would require hospitals and long-term care facilities to allow a “legal representative’’ to visit a patient or resident during a health emergency.

A stripped-down House Bill 290 was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday after about 90 minutes of testimony and debate.

A series of hospital groups spoke against the bill, arguing that allowing such visits could endanger patients and staff during an infectious disease outbreak similar to COVID-19.

That argument appeared to sway committee members, who voted to accept an amendment from Sen. Dean Burke (R-Bainbridge) that removed the proposed requirements for legal representatives — usually family members — to be allowed to visit patients at least an hour a day.

Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), who steered the bill through many revisions and hours of testimony, used a Facebook post to blast the committee’s changes:

“Hospital lobbyists completely GUTTED the right of patients to see their family members in the hospital! After two months of rigorous legal work and two hours of compelling testimony from lawmakers, families, hospital nurses, and ER doctors who strongly support House Bill 290, the bill was completely stripped of all its substance and passed out as an empty shell. We are, however, undaunted and will fight until we win for the rights of all Georgians who spent 2020 watching their Mom or Dad die in the hospital with no chance to see them face-to-face.’’

The reduced bill now basically requires only that hospitals have visitor policies that meet federal guidelines. It will head to the Senate Rules Committee.

Rep. David Ralston

Rep. David Ralston

Credit: Georgia Health News

But looming is a potential tug-of-war with House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), who has taken a personal interest in the legislation.

Ralston, in supporting HB 290, recently spoke from the well of the House about his own experience with visitation restrictions. He talked of trying to help a young husband see his wife before she died. “I couldn’t do it,’’ recalled Ralston, one of the most powerful people in the state. “He said goodbye on FaceTime.’’

A friend said goodbye to his mother through a window, Ralston added. Still another woman had trouble explaining to her mother why she couldn’t visit her, he said.

There’s talk in the industry that the House may hold up a Senate bill as a result of the gutting of HB 290.

Widespread Support

Leading up to the Senate committee vote, Setzler told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee that the legal representatives help patients make decisions on their care. He said the bill provisions reflected ‘‘the lightest touch possible’’ to allow these representatives to meet with the patient.

Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta

Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta

Credit: Georgia House of Representatives

In past testimony, Setzler referred to how his father-in-law had a heart attack, was hospitalized in Gwinnett County, and was denied a visit from his daughter.

A hospital or long-term care facility can prescribe the rules governing representatives’ visits, noted Rep. Mark Newton (R-Augusta), an emergency physician and supporter of HB 290. He told the Senate panel that a young teen who’s hospitalized “needs someone there to help them.’’ A sedated patient needs a legal representative as well, Newton added. Having a patient’s family member there “is great for us as a provider,’’ he said.

“Many people have died alone’’ during COVID, Newton said.

The Faith & Freedom Coalition, as well as the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, spoke in favor of Setzler’s bill. The Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association said it supports the legislation’s goal to help prevent isolation among dementia patients in long-term care facilities.

Hospitals Cite Safety

The hospital industry, though, came out in full force in opposition at the Wednesday hearing.

Anna Adams of the Georgia Hospital Association proposed alternative language “to preserve the patients’ decision-making ability’’ without putting them at risk.

Jill Case-Wirth, chief nurse executive of Marietta-based Wellstar Health System, said COVID-19 “created an unprecedented hazardous environment in our facilities, and it required us to make incredibly difficult decisions to restrict visitors and family members in order to reduce transmission in our facilities and spread in our communities.’’

Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville

Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville

Credit: Northeast Georgia Medical Center

Dr. Robert Jansen, chief medical officer at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, said he was concerned about protecting victims of abuse and violence from visitors, who could inflict more harm. He also expressed concern about visits to burn units and to psychiatric patients.

Deb Bailey of Northeast Georgia Health System, whose Gainesville hospital was once overwhelmed with COVID patients, urged lawmakers to “allow our infectious disease physicians, and those that are responsible for the care for our patients and our staff, the ability to make that decision’’ on patient visits.

And Tim Kibler of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals said his organization had “great concerns’’ about Setzler’s proposals.

Had hospitals not restricted visitors during the pandemic, Kibler said, there would have been “more contagion’’ on hospital campuses.

In presenting his crucial amendment, Sen. Burke, a physician and hospital executive, said the Setzler bill “needs more work’’ and that “there’s little time to perfect this bill.’’

Setzler and HB 290 proponents have just a few days to get their original proposal through the General Assembly. The 2021 legislative session ends Wednesday.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Health News.