DENVER — Colorado lawmakers debated a bill Tuesday that would require hospitals to allow patients to have a visitor with them, even during a pandemic.
Senate Bill 22-053 would require hospitals, nursing care facilities and assisted living residences to permit patients to have at least one visitor during their stay.
“It's never good to allow someone to die alone, and so this is to address that and figure out how do we work that fine line in a pandemic,” said bill co-sponsor Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Logan). “One family member or one person that can help that patient, I don't think that's too much to ask.”
The bill would also prohibit these facilities from adopting policies that prohibit visitation for the sole reason of reducing the spread of diseases.
For families, this bill is about the human element of healthcare.
“Imagine the anguish of having the person you love the most in the world being in a hospital alone without you there being able to hold their hand,” said Steve Reiter, who lost his wife, Elizabeth, in 2020.
Elizabeth went to the hospital in April 2020 for pneumonia and a blood infection. Neither her husband nor her two sons were allowed in the hospital for the 21 days before she died.
“The isolation that Elizabeth had when she was in the hospital was excruciating,” Reiter said.
He believes his wife would still be alive if her family were allowed to be by her side.
Reiter says the emotional support is important, but families also want to be in the hospital rooms to advocate for their loved ones and help make medical decisions.
“Just having someone else listen to the conversations of what the doctor is saying," he said. "They can ask questions that the loved one who is sick and may not mentally be able to think about."
Since losing his wife, Reiter started the Never Alone Project with the goal of passing legislation across the country to require hospital visitation rights during a pandemic. He has had some success in states like North Carolina.
During a committee hearing, other families also shared their stories of loss. Debbie Shivers was not able to visit her husband for nearly three weeks before his death.
“It was important for him to hear my voice, know that I was there. It would have made a difference,” Shivers said. “I told them, 'I will make concessions. I will sign a waiver of liability. I will get my own PPE.'"
The Shivers family wasn’t allowed into the hospital until right before their loved one passed away. By then, they say, it was too late.
Roy Gillham had a similar experience. His father went to the hospital for COVID-19 and died 19 days later. The family was only allowed in to say their final goodbyes.
“One of the things they keep saying is, 'Nobody's dying alone. We're letting them in at time of death.' Well, that is far too little and far too late,” said Gillham’s wife, Brandee. “This is not only about preserving what's going on right now as far as opening up those doors, but to really protect the rights of humans and families in the future.”
The Gillham family says it was difficult to make medical decisions or even stay up-to-date with their loved one’s medical status.
In a statement, the Colorado Hospital Association has come out in opposition to the bill. However the group called the decision to block or limit visitors difficult but necessary during the pandemic.
“Senate Bill 22-053 doesn’t provide the flexibility necessary for Colorado’s healthcare facilities to respond accordingly to rapidly evolving public health scenarios,” said Joshua Ewing, vice president of legislative affairs for CHA.
The statement went on to say that hospitals followed local, state and federal public health guidance to minimize the spread of the virus.
The bill is unlikely to pass. It was assigned to the Senate's State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which is known for killing bills. Nevertheless, families came from near and far Tuesday to testify, hoping their experiences would change lawmakers’ minds.
If this bill isn’t passed, House Republicans plan to introduce their own version of a compassionate care visit. That version would require healthcare facilities to allow visitors to the fullest extent allowed under state law.
It defines a compassionate care visit as a patient in an end-of-life situation, someone who needs cuing or encouragement to eat or drink, etc. That bill is expected to be introduced later this session.