Lawmakers push for expanded nursing home visitation

By CASEY SMITH
The Associated Press/Report for America

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers are seeking to change visitation restrictions at the state's health and residential care sites amid concerns about residents' declining interactions with loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.

A measure that advanced to the full House Wednesday after a unanimous committee vote would require health facilities to allow at least one caretaker to visit a resident during compassionate care situations. Those include if the resident is dying, grieving a recent death, experiencing emotional distress or needing encouragement to eat or drink.

Under the bill, long-term care facilities would also be required to participate in the state health department's Essential Family Caregivers Program during a declared emergency, a public health emergency, or similar crisis.

That program further designates at least two caregivers who can enter facilities and provide residents with support like meal set up, grooming and general companionship, even during periods of restricted visitation. While some facilities in Indiana currently participate in the program, not all do.

“I thought I was having a bad dream ... 10 months later, I’m still having that bad dream,” said Republican Sen. Linda Rogers, who authored the bill. “This is a first step in providing a way that we can visit our loved ones that have been locked away in these facilities.”

Nursing homes across the country have been devastated by COVID-19 deaths as elderly people and those with serious health troubles living in nursing homes are among the most at-risk from severe illness due to the coronavirus.

Indiana has seen at least 23,000 cases in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with more than 4,900 deaths, or about half of Indiana’s confirmed and suspected COVID-19 deaths, outpacing the U.S. average.

In response, many long-term care facilities across the state have barred or restricted any visitors since the pandemic took hold last March.

Currently, residential care facilities can allow indoor visitation if there is no new onset of coronavirus cases within the last 14 days and if the facility is not currently conducting outbreak testing. Because local officials use community-level metrics to determine when and how many indoor visitors should be allowed, visitation rules also vary across Indiana's counties.

Laura Brown with the Indiana Health Care Association said Wednesday that an immunity provision in the bill should provide peace of mind for facilities that have been hesitant to allow more caregiver or family visitation. According to the bill, facility staff would not be liable for spread of COVID-19 among residents or visiting family members, as long as they're acting in good faith and without “gross negligence.”

Still, should the bill become law, its reach would not override contradictory mandates by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The federal agency issued such measures last spring, directing nursing homes to temporarily restrict all visitors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“I don’t think there’s anything we could do if they say absolutely no visitation," Brown said. “We couldn’t get around that.”

A similar bill prosed in the Senate would change visitation restrictions specifically for nursing homes, although the measure has not yet been placed on the Legislature's agenda.




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