ATLANTA — A Georgia House committee held a passionate debate Thursday over a pared-down bill to allow people to visit patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities during a public health emergency.

The nation is currently in the midst of such an emergency — the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original version of the “Right to Visit’’ legislation, House Bill 290, would have prevented these facilities from getting or renewing their licenses if they maintained a policy to keep visitors away from patients during a “declared public health emergency.”

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The new version, as outlined by Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, would put more limits on those visits. The changes were made after intense lobbying from the health care industry.

Instead of the more wide-open proposal, the revised bill would allow a patient’s “legal representative’’ to visit for a minimum of an hour a day, provided that this visitor meets the facility’s conditions. The representative would be someone designated by the patient to help make informed decisions on medical care, Setzler told the House Human Relations and Aging Committee.

He acknowledged that “there will be people who will be mad at me’’ for altering the proposed legislation to place more limits on visits.

Long-term care visitation has been restricted by Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order and under federal guidelines. These limits on visits were imposed early in the COVID pandemic, as nursing homes and other long-term care facilities endured a horrific disease toll.

More than 4,000 Georgia residents of these homes have died, about one-third of the state’s confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

But now, with nursing home residents getting vaccinations, the state’s long-term care ombudsmen have urged Kemp to ease his rules and allow an “essential visitor’’ – typically a family member – to come into the building to see a loved one.

With long waits to see their family members, patients “are just withering away,’’ Melanie McNeil, the state’s chief long-term care ombudsman, told GHN recently.

The House panel is scheduled to vote on the measure next week.

“This could well be one of the most important measures’’ of the Georgia General Assembly session, said the committee chairman, Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah.

The bill also would allow an “essential caregiver,’’ typically a relative, to visit a patient in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, but not a hospital.

The Georgia Health Care Association, which represents long-term care providers, expressed reservations about the updated legislation.

“While we are supportive of the bill sponsor’s intent to allow for additional visitation and bring together residents and families, the new version of HB 290 still includes provisions that would put centers in jeopardy of being non-compliant with federal regulations,’’ Devon Barill, a spokeswoman for GHCA, said. “We appreciate the opportunity Chairmen Setzler and Petrea have afforded us to contribute to the debate. We will continue to work with the committee to resolve any conflicts between state and federal regulations.’’

Members of the committee pointed out the potential impact that such visitations would have on hospitals and infection control efforts. Rep. Mary Robichaux, D-Roswell, asked whether a hospital would be violating the proposed law if it were to prohibit a visit to an ICU that contains COVID patients.

But Rep. Danny Mathis, R-Cochran, spoke of the anguish that families feel over not seeing their loved ones.

“We have a moral obligation for these folks to be with their loved ones,’’ he said.

The legal representation rule, if passed, would help Gail Manter of Hartwell see her husband, Tom, in person at the nursing home where he lives.

“Everybody’s willing to do what we need to do to get in,’’ she said.

Tom has Parkinson’s disease and has been in the facility for two years. Gail used to visit him daily, but since the pandemic began early last year, those regular trips have ended.

“It’s just criminal not to let us see our loved one,’’ she said Thursday. “If we need to buy PPE, we’ll buy PPE,” she added, referring to the protective garb that health care workers wear to limit the spread of infections. She said that if the bill passed, she would qualify as both a legal representative and an essential caregiver.

If Setzler’s bill becomes law, it will go into effect July 1.

The original measure would have required hospitals and long-term care facilities to allow patients to have two visitors for up to two hours per day.

The blocking of family visits has had a negative effect across the board, Setzler said recently.

“This has put extraordinary stress on families, this has put extraordinary stress on our sickest, most vulnerable citizens, and this has actually put tremendous stress on nurses and health care workers who benefit from the presence of family members at their patients’ bedsides supporting the medical care they provide,” he said.

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.

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