Iowa GOP leader to propose mandating visitation rights at care facilities

An Iowa lawmaker says he wants to draft legislation to create visitation rights for Iowans in long-term care centers. (Photo by Geber86/E+ via Getty Images)

State Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said he is drafting a “patient bill of rights,” for this upcoming legislative session that will give family members legal rights to visit relatives in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices, especially if they’re dying.

The proposed legislation comes as Chapman said he’s dealt with his own grief in the last four months when both his grandmother and sister died, neither related to COVID-19.

Though he was able to be with both of them, Chapman, who traveled to Texas to see his sister, said the state’s regulations created “significant hurdles” for him to be with her in her final moments.

“I was fortunate enough to be present by her side, but it did not come without a lot of struggle,” Chapman said. “Those aren’t the conversations that should be taking place when you’re in the final moments.”

State Sen. Jake Chapman is a Republican from Adel. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

Chapman, who was recently elected Senate president, said he is meeting with “stakeholders,” including long-term care professionals, to see how families can prevent spreading the virus in a facility while still being able to visit their loved ones.

Earlier this year, Gov. Kim Reynolds restricted visitations at long-term care facilities, due to the ability of the virus to quickly spread among residents. Since then, she has lifted those restrictions, but medical and residential facilities may still impose their own visitor restrictions.

Chapman said some facilities have stricter visitor regulations than required by the state or recommended by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS guidelines allow families and friends to visit someone in a nursing home for “compassionate care” that go beyond end-of-life visits, as long as facilities stay free of the virus for 28 days.

Chapman said he does not have specific details yet for his upcoming legislation, but he said it will take a “measured approach.”

“I’m not trying to paint anyone as the bad guy here, but I think we have to recognize these are human beings, these are people,” Chapman said.

Preventing the spread of COVID-19, while also allowing visitations with friends and family “is a huge balancing act,” for long-term care facilities, said John Hale, co-owner of Hale Group, an Ankeny-based consulting firm that advocates for older Iowans and their caregivers. 

He believes any legislation addressing visitation rights is important and should happen quickly.

Hale said he spoke with dozens of Iowa nursing home residents who have described their living situations as a “prison” and are deteriorating mentally.

“Many of them are just kind of giving up,” Hale said.

Visitor restrictions are mixed in nursing homes in Iowa and depend on a facility’s own policies, Hale said.

Many ended communal dining and social activities that kept residents busy.

He expects restrictions to ramp up in the winter months because of the state’s high COVID-19 rates.

Reynolds announced during her press conference on Thursday that an additional 20 long-term care facilities have outbreaks for a total of 114. 

But Hale said he believes facilities should be able to work with family members to ensure end-of-life visits, even if they require visitors to get tested, quarantine and wear head-to-toe personal protective equipment.

“I might look unbelievably strange, but just the ability to be in a room with a loved one and spend time with them, I think it’s absolutely essential,” Hale said.

But if Iowans want to get COVID-19 under control in long-term care facilities, he said community spread needs to reduce and nursing homes need adequate supplies for rapid testing.

“Facilities reflect what’s going on around the area they exist,” Hale said. “If COVID is a serious health and safety concern in a community, it automatically becomes a health and safety concern in facilities.”