‘Seclusion kills’: Missouri lawmakers pass limits on hospital COVID visitor restrictions

The bill was deeply personal for some lawmakers whose family members died amid the pandemic

By: - May 13, 2022 12:43 pm

The legislation aimed to ensure residents could visit their family members in the wake of hospitals' visitor restrictions imposed during the COVID pandemic (photo by Armond Feffer).

Two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri lawmakers sent to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk legislation that aims to ensure residents can access their family members in the face of visitor restrictions at hospitals.

A House bill unanimously passed on the final day of the legislative session with 129 votes in support, and shortly after lawmakers also unanimously passed a wide-ranging Senate bill that also contains the provisions.

“Seclusion kills,” said Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson who worked on the legislation.

It had been a priority of House Majority Leader Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, and was deeply personal for several lawmakers.

Rep. Ed Lewis, a Moberly Republican who worked on the legislation, said if the bill had been in place in March of 2020 when his mother was sent to the hospital after a fall, then perhaps she wouldn’t have later passed away.

Rep. Ed Lewis (photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

“My sister could have advocated for my mom, and my mom might still be here today. Might be sitting up in the gallery. I might have been able to wish her happy mother’s day yesterday,” Lewis said Monday when the language was discussed on a different bill.

The final bill was a product of the merging of different Senate and House versions of the legislation, and ultimately removed some provisions — like barring health care facilities from requiring patients be vaccinated against any disease to receive treatment or visitors.

Under the bill passed Friday, health care facilities, which include hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities, must permit at least two visitors to be able to see a patient in-person during visiting hours. Facilities would still be permitted to impose certain restrictions, like if a visitor is showing symptoms of an infection or while emergency care is being administered.

During a state of emergency related to infectious diseases, a patient may have at least two designated “essential caregivers,” but hospitals and long-term care facilities can be permitted to limit in-person visits to one caregiver at a time.

Facilities may limit the access if an essential caregiver fails to follow protocols or can request from the state health department a seven-day suspension. Visitation cannot be suspended for a patient for more than 14 consecutive days or 45 total days in a year, and the attorney general is authorized to initiate lawsuits to ensure patients’ access to their caregivers.

Marjorie Moore, the executive director of VOYCE, a St. Louis nonprofit that advocates for quality living across long-term care, said that many long-term care residents who died amid the pandemic spent their final days separated from loved ones.

“Countless others experienced a significant decline in their physical and mental health due to lockdowns designed to keep them safe, but instead isolated them,” Moore said in a statement. “The Essential Caregivers Program ensures that even under emergency orders, long-term care residents have the right to see people who can provide care and comfort. ”

Sen. Bill White, a Joplin Republican who worked on the legislation, said earlier this week the regulations would help ensure access to patients beyond just COVID-19, and for the next pandemic that may be “many, many times worse.”

Health care groups, like the Missouri Assisted Living Association and Missouri Health Care Association, had stressed they didn’t want to be caught between conflicting rules and “referee a fight between the state government and the federal government.”

The bill includes provisions to allow for facilities to comply with federal orders that may limit visitors.

The legislation also establishes a complaint process, which would kick off an investigation by the state health department within 36 hours of receiving a report of an alleged violation.

This story has been updated since it was first published to include additional comments.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.