House committee passes bills to expand visitation rights in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities

Deborah Trigueiro (R) greets her husband Douglas Smith, with a big hug from across the table at the Life Care Center of Kirkland on August 24, 2020 in Kirkland, Washington. This was only the second time they had seen each other in person since February when the coronavirus (COVID-19) raced through the facility. Prior to their first visit the week before they had had to talk through the window on a phone. The families cannot touch, must visit outside and stay socially distant. The Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home, was an early epicenter for coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

The Louisiana House Health and Welfare committee unanimously advanced a bill that would allow close family to visit their family members with disabilities in intermediate care facilities — preventing the Louisiana Department of Health from making rules that prohibit visitation. The committee also unanimously approved a bill that would expand nursing home visitation rights for residents.

The language from HB 95 would require “the La. Department of Health to allow visitation of residents at intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities by persons designated as close family members.”

Intermediate care facilities are facilities that provide nursing and support care for patients that aren’t 24/7. So patients stay at the facility part time and at home part time.

Sen. Rhona Butler, R-Evangeline, the author of the bill, told the committee about her experience of not being able to see her 5-year-old son, Derrick, who she said has the mental maturity of a 1-year-old — and the negative emotional and physical impact the separation had on him. Butler said she has pictures of her son scratching the hair off his scalp out of frustration. “I’m not asking for pity,” she said. “I’m just asking for help.”

“I have other pictures of children that just stopped eating,” Butler said. She said these children are used to going home after two weeks with their parents, but many have been forced to stay in their facilities since the COVID-19 pandemic. “As a parent, I would’ve done anything to see my son.”

Butler said some intermediate care facilities, like her son’s, allowed parents to bring their child home intermittently, but had to bring negative tests before each pick-up and drop-off.

The committee also unanimously approved a bill that would expand nursing home visitation rights for residents.

Tony Bacala, R-Ascension, who introduced the nursing home-visitation bill, said the health of the nursing home residents could deteriorate in isolation.

“(The Alzheimer’s Association) feels like people with Alzheimer’s are dying early because of lack of interaction with family members,” he said. “This is about lives saved, but perhaps lives lost to COVID restrictions.”

The language of HB 43 states that “nursing homes allow in-person access to a resident by (immediate family members or guests) if the person or resident chooses to visit in person.”

Rep. Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner, raised concerns that this bill could endanger nursing home residents during the next pandemic or outbreak. Stagni said the bill was a response to COVID-19, so he wanted to keep this law only applied to COVID-19.

“With COVID-19, you know what you’re dealing with,” Stagni said. “Going forward, we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

The bill was then amended so the visitation right expansion for nursing home residents only applied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday was the second time the health and welfare committee considered HB 43 in as many weeks. At last week’s committee meeting, Mark Berger, the executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association said his group had concerns about Bacala’s bill. He also said that rules concerning visitation during a pandemic were set by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal agency.

Stridently opposed to the bill was Will Hall, who told the committee that he was there in his individual capacity but works in the office of public policy for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Calling the protection of the elderly a “pro-life issue,” Hall told the members of the committee that they shouldn’t be entertaining the idea of promoting visitation. Instead, he said, “We should be right now quarantining our nursing homes.”  Hall advised lawmakers to take note that the median age of Louisianians who’ve died of COVID-19.  That means half of those who’ve died are younger than 76 and half are over the age of 76.

“I’m a pastor, and I deal with a lot of elderly,” Hall said. “And we’re not doing enough to protect them.”