State health department ordered to write guidelines for nursing home visitation

By: - October 23, 2020 1:15 am

In this file photo, 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)

A bill that was originally written to give nursing home residents an unquestioned right to receive visitors — even in the midst of a pandemic — was gutted and rewritten to order the state health department to create rules that govern visitation, with the caveat that those rules can be trumped by federal law.

House Bill 43, introduced by Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, was approved unanimously by the Louisiana House after the Louisiana Senate almost completely changed its contents.  The bill now has been sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards for his signature.

“The bill basically was rewritten with a lot of input from the Department of Health,” Bacala said on the House floor as he asked representatives to concur with the senate’s changes.

When Bacala first explained the bill to the House Health and Welfare Committee, he said he wrote it because of all the calls he’d received from constituents upset that, during the pandemic,  they couldn’t see their loved ones in nursing homes.  He described it as a measure that would prevent the Louisiana Department of Health from restricting visitation — and not just during the current coronavirus pandemic but during any future health emergency.

Mark Berger, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, said that guidelines about how to protect nursing home residents during a pandemic were issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal agency. During the coronavirus pandemic, Berger said, the federal government uses the percentage of people testing positive in an area to determine if nursing home residents should have visitors.

The bill that passed Thursday is explicit that the rules that the state health department sets governing visitation can be superseded by a federal law, rule or statute. 

Also, nursing homes will have the discretion to establish “reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on resident visitation” to mitigate the transmission of disease “or to address the medical condition or clinical considerations of an individual resident.”

After being heavily amended in the senate, House Bill 43 passed unanimously in the House. The bill requires the Louisiana Department of Health to create rules that would allow immediate family members and other designated persons to visit residents of nursing homes during a public health emergency, with special consideration to be given to residents receiving end-of-life care. 

Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville and author of the bill, said those rules will be heavily vetted by legislators.

Under the bill, nursing homes are to “adopt reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on resident visitation” to protect their residents during a public health emergency, but those restrictions must adhere to federal rules and regulations.

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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.