The Alabama Legislature’s current special session is focused on spending more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 funds, but some lawmakers also want to pass in this shortened session a bill they say will give people more access to their hospitalized family members, including during public health emergencies.
Sen. Garlan Gudger's Senate Bill 2 would require health care facilities, including hospitals and nursing homes, to establish policies that meet certain requirements, including:
— Allowing a patient or resident to designate a visitor as an essential caregiver. The provider must allow in-person visitation by the essential caregiver for at least two hours daily in addition to any other visitation authorized by the facility
— Allow consensual physical contact between a resident, client, or patient and the visitor
— Allowing in-person visits in several scenarios, including end-of-life, during childbirth and for pediatric patients.
The bill also says its provisions can’t be suspended or modified by emergency rule or order.
The Senate did not take up the bill on Tuesday afternoon, making it unlikely to pass in the special session expected to end later this week. Gudger and other supporters will refile the bill for the regular session that will resume next week.
In 2021, Gudger sponsored and passed Senate Bill 307, which said during public health emergencies, health care facilities shall continue to allow visitors under certain conditions.
Last week, Gudger said that the law hasn’t worked as intended.
“I’ve had multiple phone calls saying ‘Hey, we passed this bill two years ago but I still can’t get in to see my loved one, especially at the end of life,’” Gudger told the Senate Health Committee last week.
The new bill is similar to legislation signed into law in Florida last year.
But as they said in 2021, hospital and nursing home leaders say they must follow guidelines from the federal Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees health care facilities that get federal funding. Not following those rules, including on visitations, could result in the loss of funding and licenses.
Brandon Farmer, president of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, last week told Alabama Daily News CMS is skilled nursing homes “ultimate regulatory authority,” and he doesn’t want to see his members trying to abide by conflicting state and federal policies.
If CMS says an individual facility or those in a specific region or the entire state have to limit visitation, it’s not a suggestion, Farmer said.
“That’s something we absolutely have to follow,” he said.
He said nursing homes never want to limit visitation, it is not only bad for residents, but bad for facilities’ viability.
“No one certainly is going to want to put their loved one in a facility where visitation is unnecessarily limited,” Farmer said.
Both Farmer and Danne Howard of the Alabama Hospital Association have discussed the bill with Gudger.
Howard said the hospital association wants to make sure there are no unintended consequences in SB2.
Rep. Debbie Wood, R-Valley, is sponsoring Gudger’s bill in the House. She also helped pass the 2021 law.
“We thought the (2021) bill had enough teeth to get people in, but it didn’t,” Wood said.
Wood’s mother died in a rehabilitation facility in 2021 following a hospitalization from COVID-19. Wood said her families’ access to her mother was severely limited prior to her death. A family member could only see her occasionally, outside and from a distance, Wood said. Wood’s voice cracks when talking about her mother’s final days.
“My mom thought I abandoned her; I didn’t,” Wood said.
Sen. Dan Roberts, whose wife died in early 2022 after a lengthy COVID-19 battle, moved to give the bill a favorable report last week in the Senate Health Care Committee. It passed the committee on a 10-0 vote.