PIERRE | After sometimes emotional testimony on Tuesday morning, the House Health and Human Services Committee approved HB1139, a bill to increase communication between assisted living centers and the families of their residents.
HB1139 would require assisted living centers to post to their websites the most current regulations from the state as a way of informing the relatives of residents about their visitation rights.
“All this is about is access to information,” said Rep. Phil Jensen, R-Rapid City, the bill’s sponsor.
Janet Jensen of Rapid City explained to the committee that while nursing homes are federally regulated, assisted living facilities, like those that would be governed by HB113, are regulated by the state. According to her, most families of assisted living facility residents don’t know that they may be allowed essential caregiver visits or compassionate caregiver visits.
“How do you know your rights are being violated if you don’t know what your rights are?” Janet Jensen asked.
During the pandemic most visits, if allowed, have been supervised and monitored, Janet Jensen said, “allowing no degree of privacy.”
Essential caregiver visits allow visits from a friend or relative that has an ongoing relationship with the resident and may help take care of some of the resident’s needs. Compassionate caregiver visits are for end of life, mental distress or when isolation has led to the resident being withdrawn or losing appetite.
“Families should have access to the exact documents the facilities are receiving,” Janet Jensen said. “Each facility should be able to implement this.”
Vicki Franzen testified that her mother was paying $5,000 a month in a Rapid City facility that wouldn’t allow her to accompany her mother to doctors' appointments without putting her mother in a 14-day quarantine afterward. Franzen found out, through a friend, that not all of the facilities in Rapid City operate that way.
“Who has a more vested interest than me in my mom’s best interest?” Franzen asked.
Stephen Manlove, a Rapid City psychiatrist, said the pandemic has taken a serious toll on people, particularly the elderly. He said HB1139 offered a start on the path to maintaining human contact and human dignity.
“Being a human being means being connected with people you love,” Manlove said.
Kathy Rhoden of Newell said that isolation from her mother during her lockdown in a skilled nursing facility in Belle Fourche led to essential paperwork and financial matters going unattended.
“This situation is prime for elder abuse and no one would know better,” Rhoden said
Opposing the bill was Brett Hoffman, representing the South Dakota Health Care Association, who said that assisted living facilities have to be locked down because of the threat COVID-19 poses to the elderly.
“They are uniquely vulnerable to the virus,” he said, noting that the people working at the facilities don’t take their residents’ isolation from their families lightly.
A variety of factors determine a facility’s visitation policies, Hoffman said, including the virus spread in the community, the presence of the virus in the facility, and the availability of staffing and personal protection equipment.
“It makes sense that visitation would vary from one facility to another,” he said.
Many of the visitation rights listed in HB1139 are already included in state law, according to Hoffman. Passage of the bill “won’t result in us getting back to regular visitation sooner.”
The bill’s requirement that facilities post documents to a website gives them “another regulatory box to check,” Hoffman said, noting that the information is already available on the Department of Health website.
Also speaking in opposition to the bill was Tammy Hatting, representing the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations. Hatting said that since the start of the pandemic in March, care facilities in South Dakota have received more than 200 state and federal guidelines.
“We feel this is a permanent restriction for a temporary problem,” Hatting said. “One size truly does not fit all when it comes to assisted living.”
Rep. Sydney Davis, R-Burbank, who said her grandmother died during the pandemic while in a nursing home, objected to the bill’s duplicative language and the burden it would put on smaller facilities that are in the midst of a “balancing act that they are already trying to accomplish.”
The bill was endorsed by the committee on a vote of 8-5 and now goes to the full House.