Could Georgia make video-only final visits with dying coronavirus patients illegal?

Hospitals and nursing homes would have to allow in-person family visits during public-health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic under a bill filed in the General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, would prohibit Georgia hospitals and nursing homes from limiting patients’ ability to visit with family members in the event treatment or hospitalization lasts more than 24 hours – including during any “declared public health emergency.”

Family members approved by the facilities would be permitted to visit with ailing loved ones in-person for at least two hours daily, according to the bill.

Setzler said his legislation aims to relieve the despair families have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, when dying loved ones often were reduced to spending their final moments with family via an electronic touchscreen.

“Watching your mother die in a four-inch screen on an iPhone is simply unacceptable,” Setzler said. “Every corner of this state has been devastated by the reality of not being able to visit sick or dying family members in times of great need.”

Hospital and assisted-living advocates say they’re reviewing Setzler’s bill, noting the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted tragedy for family members unable to see their dying loved ones but that federal rules on visitation have handcuffed them.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s more sympathetic and would like to be able to reunite families than our centers,” said Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association. “We just want to be sure that any efforts to allow visitation are certainly done in the best interests of the safety and protection of the residents.”

Currently, Georgia allows visitation at nursing homes and long-term care facilities based on levels of COVID-19 positivity rates in a given community, under federal guidelines.

State Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, who owns a local assisted-living facility, said he is still reviewing the bill but does see “some potential conflicts” with federal regulations – though he also stresses families have been devastated by the inability to see loved ones stricken with COVID-19 and should have an avenue to seek better comfort.

“The whole situation is just gut-wrenching to watch and be a part of,” LaHood said. “It feels like a no-win situation.”

Setzler pointed out his bill would allow hospitals and nursing homes to impose “reasonable safety requirements” for visitation, though specific rules are not outlined in the bill. He said the bill aims to “give the provider control” over setting safety measures for how and where loved ones could be visited.

The bill also includes liability protections aimed at shielding Georgia hospitals and nursing homes from legal consequences for allowing visitors during public-health emergencies, mirroring legal guardrails businesses gained last August amid the pandemic, which House Republicans have proposed extending until June 14, 2022.

Setzler said he expects debate over his bill to center on what level of negligence hospitals and nursing homes would need to show for those liability protections to be waived in court. Lawmakers battled last year over whether to set the bar at “gross negligence” for bringing coronavirus-related suits against businesses and hospitals – a high legal hurdle but not impossible to meet, experts said.

COVID-19 measures in the 2021 legislation session now underway come as more than 1 million Georgians have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccines, an amount constrained by the short supply of vaccines currently being sent out by the federal government.

More than 763,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Thursday afternoon, with nearly 165,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 13,048 Georgians.

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