Bill advances to guarantee visitors for patients, long-term care residents

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

The House Health and Welfare Committee has passed a bill guaranteeing  a right to visitation from essential caregivers for hospital patients and residents in long-term care facilities.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, was crafted in response to early COVID-19 restrictions that prohibited in-person visits at nursing homes, hospitals, and other medical facilities in Idaho, though Stennett added a need existed even before the pandemic. 

“You do need to have someone in the room who is familiar with (the patient’s) medical portfolio, who is able to assist them,” Stennett said.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, presents a bill to guarantee visits from essential caregivers for hospital patients and residents in long-term care facilities on March 1.

Stennett gave an example of a friend who wasn’t allowed to accompany her mother to the hospital. Left alone with doctors, the mother, who has dementia, would misrepresent her symptoms and health status, Stennett said.

“She said ‘You don’t understand. My mother seems really capable of speaking for herself. She’s very charming. She’ll tell you all these things that simply aren’t true,'” Stennett told the committee. “‘She’ll tell you she doesn’t take any medication and she takes eight of them in the morning and in the evening, and she’ll tell you she’s sleeping great and she doesn’t sleep at all.'”

Stennett’s bill is similar to one proposed by Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, which would have guaranteed unlimited in-person visitation to residents of long-term care facilities. That bill passed the House in February. The House Health and Welfare Committee was split on Young’s bill, but unanimously supported Stennett’s, which passed the Senate last week.

“I think this is a good piece of legislation. I think it’s well thought-out,” said Rep. Ned Burns, D-Bellevue, who opposed Young’s bill in February. 

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee heard both bills on the same day in early March, and chose to pass Stennett’s version to the floor. No one on the committee made a motion on Young’s bill, stalling it in committee.

Isolation, depression and grief for families and patients

Several hospitals and clinics still restrict visitors. Currently, Idaho allows visitors at long-term care facilities, with a face mask requirement.  

That wasn’t the case in the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines were available. COVID-19 hits older people especially hard; Nearly one in four recorded COVID-related deaths in Idaho is associated with long-term care facilities.

But separation from families took its own toll during the same period of time. Many of those who testified in favor of Young’s bill in the Senate committee on March 1 spoke about how isolated their loved ones felt when they couldn’t receive visitors. Linda Hines, owner of Grace Assisted Living, told senators she saw an increase in depression, confusion, and suicidal ideation among her residents who couldn’t see their family members.

“Many people said they’d rather just die than not see their family,” Hines said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Chelsey Hellwege told the House Health and Welfare committee her father passed away last fall.

“We were not allowed to comfort him or advocate for him or reassure him that we would take care of our mom, his wife of 47 years,” Hellwege said. “I will never forget it or get over it, and I will continue to fight against this evil,” Hellwege said. 

The bill now goes before the full House for consideration.

If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-8255 or text 208-398-4357.

<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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