Bills would require hospitals to allow visitors; hospitals say flexibility needed

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,505 views 

Two bills would require medical providers to allow patients to have visitors, but the Arkansas Hospital Association says hospitals need flexibility to protect patients, visitors and health care workers.

House Bill 1061 by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-East End, would create the No Patient Left Alone Act requiring health care providers to allow at least one person to be physically present with the patient on a daily basis at reasonable times during their hospitalization, office visit, or institutionalization.

Senate Bill 19 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would require hospitals and physicians’ offices to allow a support person to accompany the patient “unless the presence of the support person infringes on the rights or safety of others or is medically or therapeutically contraindicated.” For minors, parents and guardians would have to be permitted.

The bill comes as many health care providers are severely restricting patient visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayberry said loved ones provide emotional support and can explain to providers the patient’s needs and symptoms, describe drug allergies and medical histories, and advocate on the patient’s behalf. Sometimes a patient needs help understanding instructions. Caregivers can alert nurses to problems, help the patient go to the bathroom, and provide other aid that reduces the burden on hospital staff.

“This is about making sure that the patient’s needs are being met,” she said. “If you’re a patient in the hospital, the nurse can’t be by your side 24-7, and that loved one that’s with you in the hospital provides a tremendous amount of care.”

Mayberry’s 18-year-old daughter recently spent three months in Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where visitors are allowed and where Mayberry was continually by her side. Mayberry said her daughter was vomiting constantly and can’t sit up on her own, so she could have aspirated before a nurse saw her.

“That makes me kind of question even more: If Children’s Hospital can do that successfully, why can’t the other hospitals?” she said. “I’m not aware of some scenario where Children’s Hospital, everyone’s getting infected with COVID because they’ve allowed one caregiver in there. So why can’t the other hospitals do that?”

But Children’s Hospital is unique, said Jodiane Tritt with the Arkansas Hospital Association, which opposes Mayberry’s bill as written.

Tritt said all hospitals are different, with different missions and physical set-ups. Children’s Hospital was already designed and prepared to accommodate visitors and families before the pandemic. Not all hospitals are designed that way. Some have limited space for navigation.

Tritt said the proposed legislation would mandate permanent requirements in statute that would rob hospitals of the flexibility they need to respond to the pandemic. She noted that early in the pandemic, hospitals did not have enough personal protective equipment for their own staff members, let alone visitors, and such a supply issue could occur again. A mandate might even hinder hospitals’ ability to produce creative visitor policies.

Hospitals fully recognize the important role loved ones provide and have tried to accommodate families through video phone calls, she said. They’ve created special entrances so visitors can be screened. But they also must protect patients from infections that could be spread unknowingly by a visitor coming from the outside.

Tritt said the proposed legislation is well-intended. She said the AHA has already spoken with Mayberry about her bill and wants to work with her. Solutions could come through regulations or by allowing individual hospitals to create their own plans without government action that is too prescriptive.

“We’re trying to do our best to come up with creative solutions to keep the patients safe, the health care workers safe, and the visitors safe while being able to communicate in a socially distanced way, even if it does have to be electronic for awhile,” Tritt said. “It’s not the hospital facilities who are creating this situation to not allow visitors. It’s absolutely COVID-19 that’s keeping people from being safe around one another.”

Mayberry was inspired to write the bill by a constituent who could no longer take her severely disabled daughter home from her long-term care facility on weekends.

“When I got that phone call, I mean I just cried,” she said. “You’re going to tell a mom who’s not a bad mom, who’s not given up custody of their child, that they can’t see their minor child? That’s borderline kidnapping.”

She said another constituent, a 100-year-old war veteran and pastor, died alone in a nursing home begging to see his family.

“The patient’s needs are not front and center,” she said. “This virus has been front and center, and many of these situations, the person does not have COVID, the caregiver, the loved one doesn’t have COVID, so why are we saying you can’t come in and help?”

Mayberry’s bill has two House co-sponsors and four co-sponsors in the Senate. One co-sponsor, Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, a hospice chaplain and pastor, believes it will pass with some modifications.

He said two of his church members were dying in the hospital when their family members couldn’t be with them, although the hospital accommodated them in their final hours.

Clark’s bill did not have any co-sponsors as of Jan. 17.