It might have seemed like deja vu all over again on Monday when the Homer City Council considered a resolution backing a political position. This time, however, no one testified for or against Resolution 22-35 urging support of House Bill 252, the “No Patient Left Behind Act.” No one threatened to recall council members for their action on it. Instead, before four members voted against it, debate was polite, considerate and orderly.
Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, introduced the bill in response to concerns from constituents that they were unable to visit with family in hospitals, nursing homes or long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. During rates of high spread of the pandemic, and when vaccines or treatments hadn’t been developed, many facilities didn’t allow visitors to medical facilities. Jake Almeida, Vance’s chief of staff, said her office got more calls about the issue of not being able to visit family than about the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.
“The representative’s position is it’s a matter of morality,” Almeida said in a phone interview Tuesday.
He said Vance heard countless stories of people who were dying and could only communicate with families through video conferencing.
“That was something the representative could not stand for and that would stop those practices from moving forward,” Almeida said.
Vance’s bill would allow patients or residents to have a “support person” of their choice to be with them. Under the bill, this right would not be taken away if a state or federal disaster emergency was declared. Hospitals could impose restrictions on that right and put in place written policies and procedures explaining “any clinically necessary or reasonable restriction” on that right. For example, a hospital could keep people out of operating rooms during procedures. A hospital also could impose requirements like wearing face masks or personal protective equipment or showing a negative COVID-19 test.
“It’s not one or the other,” Almeida said of the bill. “We’re not sacrificing the health and safety of health care staff for the right of a patient to have one person by their said. There’s a way to do both.”
Council member Shelly Erickson introduced Resolution 22-35 over the misgivings of Homer Mayor Ken Castner. Castner ran for office on a platform of avoiding controversial resolutions that could divide the community.
In remarks at the end of the meeting, Castner said he wasn’t inclined to put the resolution on the agenda because it wasn’t about city issues like roads, sewer or water, or taxes.
“It’s really not in your wheelhouse, and whenever you take up something that’s not in your wheelhouse, it leads to these, you know, heart-wrenching discussions,” he said. “… But I’m also not inclined to limit your ability to bring things forth and input them before your peers to see if you can get four votes.”
Erickson said she introduced the resolution supporting the No Patient Left Behind Act out of her own experience not being able to have an advocate present for her own medical care during the pandemic restrictions. She also spoke to the experience of people who lost family and who couldn’t be present when they died.
“We’re watching the trauma from people that weren’t able to be with their loved ones when they were in such a bad state and having the ability to have someone come in and love them,” Erickson said. “… It’s just saying, ‘Hey, you as Alaskans. You have families. You as caregivers, you know, you’re important, too.’ … We all lost in this. None of us have won with COVID at all.”
In an email, South Peninsula Hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro said the hospital “is fully supportive of the premise of ‘no patient left behind.’”
SPH has protocols in place to support “no patient left behind” similar to the those in Vance’s bill, Ferraro wrote.
“All patients upon admission designate their support person or advocate for their stay which is documented in their record, and no patient or resident passes alone, unless it is unexpected or that is their request,” she wrote.
At the beginning of the pandemic the hospital had visitation restrictions. Long Term Care has been open to visitors for more than a year now, Ferraro added. A better understanding of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus transmits, better infection prevention protocols and better supplies of personal protection equipment allow SPH to honor the requests of patients and residents regarding advocates.
Council member Rachel Lord said that some of the co-sponsors of the bill were legislators who she had seen “for the last two years actively work to politicize a public health emergency and work against health care communities, the community at large, to reduce disease, reduce transmission, reduce people dying alone in hospitals and nursing homes.”
Lord also said she found the concept of the bill good.
“We can at least use something to bring it to the floor to give people hope that we have heard both sides, that, yes, family caregivers are important in any kind of crisis that we’re in,” she said.
On the other hand, Lord said she couldn’t find a legal analysis or discussion on BASIS, the website tracking bills. The bill remains in the House State Affairs Committee and no hearings have been held yet. Almeida said Vance had a legal analysis done and that it is constitutional.
She said she also didn’t see how the bill would address the situation of a pandemic with a higher death rate or something highly infectious and deadly like Ebola.
“When does someone’s right to have a loved one with them infringe on my right to have myself or my loved one be kept safe?” Lord asked.
Council member Jason Davis said he had concerns about a situation where 200 residents of a nursing home would each be allowed to bring in one family member. He pointed out that even with the low fatality rate of COVID-19, nursing homes were still devastated by illness and death.
“I don’t see how that makes sense for the state to say that in advance that every single person has a right to bring someone into a very vulnerable facility,” he said.
Council member Caroline Venuti said she had issues with the bill allowing visitors even under a disaster declaration.
“I want this, but I also think sometimes the federal government or the state has right to say we are in a disaster,” she said. “… I cannot imagine being the person at the door that has to keep someone out because of this when it’s in a federal or national disaster.”
Council member Aderhold at first said she was inclined to support the resolution. She had concerns about the state “coming down and telling hospitals you have to do something a certain way,” she said.
“When I hear myself talk, I’m actually — I’m not, I can’t support the resolution,” Aderhold said. “… I just can’t agree with this thing being mandated by the state.”
On a voice vote, council members Aderhold, Davis, Lord and Venuti voted no and council members Erickson and Storm Hansen-Cavasos voted yes.