Georgia State Capitol

As the 2021 legislative session ended, Georgia lawmakers wound up not passing a bill to allow visits by a “legal representative’’ to patients in hospitals and nursing homes during a health emergency.

Credit: Stephen Fowler/GPB file photo

As the 2021 legislative session ended, Georgia lawmakers wound up not passing a bill to allow visits by a “legal representative’’ to patients in hospitals and nursing homes during a health emergency.

The legislation ping-ponged Wednesday between the two chambers, with the House supporting its previous, stronger version, and the Senate holding firm to its own stripped-down revision.

The legislation, in its original form, would have required hospitals and long-term care facilities to allow a legal representative, typically a family member, to visit a patient or resident for at least one hour a day during a designated health emergency like the pandemic.

Early in the day, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) said the original bill “gives patients the opportunity to be seen by a legal representative who advocates for them.’’

Thousands of patients “have languished alone’’ during the COVID pandemic, he said. Opponents have brought up what Setzler called “hypotheticals,’’ which he compared to “hand grenades.’’

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) strongly supported the visitation bill, citing his own experience in trying and failing to get patients’ family members access to their loved ones.

But a Senate committee gutted the measure after a series of hospital groups spoke against the bill, arguing that allowing such visits could risk the safety of patients and staff during a disease outbreak.

And as the hours dwindled Wednesday toward Sine Die (the traditional Latin name for the end of the session), the chances for a compromise faded with them.

The 2021 legislative session didn’t have the heavy health care agenda of 2019, which produced Gov. Brian Kemp’s waiver initiatives on private insurance and Medicaid; significant regulatory changes in certificate of need; hospital transparency requirements; and HIV prevention measures.

Still, there were notable bills that captured widespread interest. In the first days of the session, for example, legislation creating an automatic “express lane’’ for Medicaid eligibility to children who receive food stamps sailed through the General Assembly. Tens of thousands of uninsured kids could gain coverage through the legislation.

But much of the drama on health legislation was saved till the last week of the session.

Nursing Home Camera Bill Falls Flat

Another notable billed failed to clear the General Assembly, even after a lengthy, sharp debate led to a significant amendment.

A bill on establishing protocols for cameras in nursing home rooms was approved by the state Senate, but with an amendment attached that pleased some advocacy groups for seniors who had opposed the original version.

The House didn’t agree to that amended version, so the initiative died.

House Bill 605 aimed to promote the visible use of cameras in rooms of residents of long-term care facilities to prevent neglect or abuse. It drew support from the long-term care industry.

But the so-called ‘’granny cam’’ measure recently ran into trouble in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which deadlocked 6-6 on approving the bill before the panel’s chairman, Sen. Ben Watson of Savannah, broke the tie.

The main point of contention revolved around cameras that are hidden, versus those that would be visible and known to the facility and its staff.

AARP, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Georgia Council on Aging opposed House Bill 605 because they said it prohibited the use of footage from hidden cameras in a civil case or administrative procedure if abuse or neglect occur in nursing homes or other facilities.

The lobbying on both sides of the issue was fierce in the last few days, and the Senate held a lengthy debate early Wednesday evening.

Proponents argued that open, visible cameras would prevent abuse and neglect.

The original bill, said Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon), “chooses prevention of bad things happening to our most tender folks, over trying to capture a ‘gotcha’ moment that can only be addressed after the fact.’’

Under the proposal, signage required for use of open cameras in a nursing home room would be “a wonderful deterrent,’’ Kennedy said, as opposed to a policy of “cameras anywhere, everywhere for any reason’’ where hidden devices could violate a roommate’s privacy.

But Sen. Burt Jones, a Jackson Republican, sponsored an amendment that would allow hidden camera data to be used in civil and administrative cases as well.

Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta, who supported the amendment, said the original bill “takes away rights and protections’’ now held by long-term care residents.

“Facilities don’t want hidden cameras in the rooms,’’ she said, “because it can be used against them.’’

Kennedy, in closing debate, said the amendment “really guts the bill.’’

The amendment passed by a 29-21 vote. Then the legislation passed by a 49-3 vote.

But with the House not accepting the revisions, the camera bill died — which was effectively a victory for its opponents.

Times They Are A-Changin'...Sort Of

In earlier action Wednesday, the General Assembly resolved a “time” difference between the two chambers — choosing between daylight saving and standard time.

The Senate agreed to a House proposal to put the state on daylight saving time all year long. Sen. Watson (R-Savannah), a physician, had argued for year-round standard time in his original bill.

Credit: Stock photo

 Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) sponsored the daylight saving version of the bill. Both he and Watson described a number of studies describing disruptions to sleep patterns and more serious health issues that increase in frequency after the current semi-annual time shifts, especially after the yearly “spring forward” shift from standard to daylight time, reported the Capitol Beat News Service.

But Georgia will continue switching back and forth under the bill that gained final passage Wednesday, unless the U.S. Congress takes action. That’s because current federal law does not allow a state to enact permanent daylight saving time.

The Georgia Senate approved House legislation to require insurers to pay providers at network rates if the providers were listed as being in the company’s network during consumers’ open enrollment period but later saw their contract ended.

Payment would last for six months after the end of the contract. The measure would not apply to coverage offered by large, self-insured employers, which are shielded from state insurance laws.

The House approved a resolution to create a joint committee to study the effects of lead exposure on children in Georgia. (Here’s a recent GHN article on the problem of lead in Georgia.)

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