House committee narrowly backs bill to guarantee in-person visits at long-term care facilities

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

The House Health and Welfare Committee narrowly endorsed a bill to guarantee in-person visitation at assisted living and nursing facilities, voting 6-5 to send the proposal to the House floor. 

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, sponsored the legislation, which would require facilities to allow in-person visits, while also allowing facilities to require the same health screening standards for visitors as they do for staff. 

“So if staff has to gown-up, if they have to scrub down, if they have to take their temperature, then those are reasonable things to also expect of visitors,” Young said. 

Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, presents House Bill 601, requiring long-term care facilities to allow in-person visits for residents. Via Idaho In Session.

Young said COVID-19 restrictions at nursing homes and assisted living facilities prompted the legislation.

Widespread disease and death at those facilities, particularly in the first year of the pandemic before residents could get vaccinated, prompted orders from Gov. Brad Little and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to shut down or limit visitation.

As of Friday, 360 of Idaho’s 400 long-term care facilities had reported a total of 14,765 cases. Nearly one in four COVID-19 deaths in Idaho has been associated with a long-term care facility. Currently, Idaho allows visitors at long-term care facilities, with a face mask requirement. 

The discussion elicited emotional debate from members of the committee, some of whom had experienced restricted visits to parents and loved ones over the last two years. House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, said her family held off on putting her mother in an assisted care facility specifically because of a prohibition on in-person visits. 

Blanksma pointed to the high rate of employee turnover in care facilities; While a resident may have different caregivers and custodians coming in and out of their rooms every week, she said, they still couldn’t see their loved ones in-person under restrictions. 

“It doesn’t hold your loved ones to a higher standard than those who are working in the facility,” Blanksma said. “It’s really straightforward and it’s the right thing to do.”

Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome, opposed sending the bill to the full House. Lickley said she had spoken to representatives with the Idaho Health Care Association, who told her they didn’t think it was necessary.

“I understand the intent,” Lickley said, adding that she was fortunate to be able to visit with her father in his care facility before he passed away last fall. “I think this is an additional burdensome regulation, actually, to our assisted living facilities.”

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, spoke of her late mother’s stay in the intensive care unit. 

“I lost my mother in December. She was in the ICU for three weeks and they had a policy that only one person at a time could come in,” Rubel said.

Through tears, she described the hospital staff’s attempts to balance letting patients see family members while keeping other patients safe.

“The staff was very compassionate,” she said. “They were not trying to torture anybody. They were trying to accommodate as best they could.”

Rubel echoed Lickley’s concern that the proposed legislation would add more regulations to medical professionals – an unwise move, she said, without knowing what other public health emergencies Idaho may face. 

“I just don’t think it’s prudent for us to be legally tying the hands of very compassionate health care providers in the absence of knowing what’s coming our way,” Rubel said.

But Blanksma said patients need to be able to see their loved ones. 

“I have experienced this first hand twice now. Twice. This has happened with my mother where she is twice,” Blanksma said. “I absolutely think there needs to be some sort of protection for the individuals that live in these facilities because there is none now.”

<strong>Melissa Davlin</strong> | Lead Producer
Melissa Davlin | Lead Producer

Melissa Davlin is the lead producer and host of Idaho Reports. She has covered the Idaho Legislature since 2012. She also produces for Outdoor Idaho and Idaho Public Television. She has won multiple awards for her work, including a regional Emmy for her documentary on Chinese immigration in Idaho, Idaho Press Club broadcast reporter of the year for 2015 and 2019, the Idaho Press Club First Amendment Award, and the 2019 Boise State University Enhancing Public Discourse award. She lives in Boise with her husband and two children. 

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