Amid the continued fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that occurred during the first few months, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities will now have 30 days to establish visitation policies under a bill signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Naples on Wednesday.
“We thought that we needed to make sure Florida was leading the way on this, to protect patients’ rights,” DeSantis said as he signed SB 988 into law. “If you are hospitalized or in a long-term care facility, you have the right to have your family members present with you. And we have to stand up and say that.”
The “No Patient Left Alone Act,” creates a new section of health care law requiring health care providers to meet minimum visitation rights that must be guaranteed. Once finalized, facilities will have 24 hours to make them easily accessible on the homepage of their websites.
The law also prohibits facilities from requiring visitors to show proof of vaccination as a prerequisite for visitation.
DeSantis was joined by Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller and Department of Health Secretary and State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo. Sen. Ileana Garcia, who sponsored the bill, was one of a handful of lawmakers who also attended the bill signing press conference.
During the first wave of the pandemic Florida shut down access to many health care facilities, especially nursing homes, a move that cut off elderly residents from their family members.
Under the new law, long-term care providers must guarantee visitation rights when a resident requires assistance to eat or drink; is grieving the loss of a friend or family member; is experiencing social distress, seldom speaking, or crying more; is making major medical decisions; or is facing end-of-life situations.
The law requires hospitals and hospice policies to guarantee visitation rights when a patient is facing end-of-life situations, making major medical decisions or is a child. Hospital visitation policies must allow for at least one companion during childbirth, including labor and delivery.
DeSantis attacked the Joe Biden administration for not taking steps to reinstate federal visitation rights for hospital patients.
“They have basically suspended those protections, so you have some parts of the country where people still aren’t able to get in and see their loved ones,” DeSantis said.
LeadingAge Florida, an association that represents mostly community-based nursing facilities and senior living communities, issued a statement thanking DeSantis for signing the bill into law.
“Limits on visitation in long-term care were incredibly difficult for families and their loved ones. Our members did a phenomenal job combating social isolation and depression throughout the pandemic through the use of technology and other creative approaches, but nothing can replace physical touch and interaction,” LeadingAge Florida President and CEO Steve Bahmer said in a prepared statement.
“Social interaction promotes mental, physical and emotional health for residents and simply improves their overall quality of life.”
Facilities must submit the policies to the state as part of the initial licensure requirements as well as renewal applications. The policies also will be required for any change of ownership applications.
The bill was one of a handful of health care related changes in the 2022 Session that DeSantis threw his support behind. He said his wife, First Lady Casey DeSantis, was the reason. Casey DeSantis has breast cancer and was being treated at Moffitt Cancer Center.
The First Lady took to social media after the Governor signed the bill posting “Wonderful to see the rights of hospital and nursing home patients protected and signed into law! Patients shouldn’t be denied the right to see their loved ones, especially during life’s difficult moments. Hopefully, this law will bring much peace, comfort and clarity.”
While DeSantis championed passage of the law, his administration issued an emergency order in March 2020 prohibiting the entry of any individual to such facilities who was not staff. Exceptions were made to family members, friends and visiting residents in end-of-life situations; hospice or palliative care workers caring for residents in end-of-life situations; and federal or state regulators.
Adult residents residing in treatment facilities were authorized to see their attorneys of record. The order banning visitation was extended in May. But the Governor modified his position and was an early advocate of allowing visitation, moved in part by the story of Jacksonville resident Mary Daniel, who gained national attention after taking a part-time job as a dishwasher at the facility where her husband resides.
The founder of Caregiver for Compromise, Daniel worked with the DeSantis administration as it modified its visitation policies. In September 2021 the DeSantis administration issued an order allowing “essential caregivers” and “compassionate care visitors,” so long as they adhered to certain requirements, including testing and infection control.
The DeSantis administration modified its order again in October allowing for general visitation. By March 22, 2021, the DeSantis administration rescinded all its previous order prohibiting visitation.
The Governor on Wednesday called visitation restrictions the “most heartbreaking” thing about the pandemic.