Georgia bill aims to reunite families unable to visit relatives in nursing homes, hospitals

ACWORTH, Ga. — Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow the sick and elderly to reunite with their families during the pandemic.

Right now, thousands of Georgians living in nursing home facilities or recovering in hospitals remain separated from their loved ones who are not allowed to visit them.

House Bill 290 aims to change that. If the bill is passed into law, the legislation would prevent hospitals and nursing homes from putting a policy in place to keep family members away from patients and residents during a declared public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic.

[SPECIAL SECTION: COVID-19 Vaccine in Georgia]

The proposed legislation would also provide legal protections for hospitals and nursing homes.

Channel 2′s Michael Seiden spoke with a mother who hopes the bill will help others get the final goodbye she could not give her own daughter.

“I know on that last day, she was so scared. I could see it in her face and there was nothing I could’ve done,” Gail Murkerson said. “I know that feeling. That feeling of helplessness, of hopelessness.”

Emily Murkerson was on vacation in Florida last April when a car hit her as she was crossing the street with her boyfriend on a motorized scooter.

She broke multiple bones and needed two emergency surgeries. Gail Murkerson said she rushed to the hospital to be by her daughter’s side, but was not allowed inside because of the pandemic.

Instead, the mother and daughter talked through Facetime and text messages. By the time the hospital allowed her to go in, it was too late.

“I have a lot of guilt. I have a lot of guilt because I didn’t push the issue,” Gail Murkerson said. “And I saw when her heart started slowing down and they escorted us out and she coded again and I just collapsed in the hallway.”


Unfortunately, the Murkersons are not the only one with that story.

“This is not an issue that’s only affected a few. This has affected tens and tens and tens of thousands of Georgia families,” said State. Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth).

Setzler said that is why he introduced House Bill 290.

“This bill recognizes the basic human right that family members and patients shouldn’t only be able to communicate through the iPhone,” he said. “Patients have a right to see their family members in difficult circumstances and shouldn’t have to die looking through the screen of at iPhone at their family members.”

Setzler told Seiden his bill would ease restrictions on families wanting to see their loved ones in hospitals, nursing homes and other long term care facilities, where right now, most are still banning in person visits.

“We set a minimum standard of two hours per day,” he said. “We also provide some legal protections to hospitals nursing homes and long term facilities”

But even with those protections in place, many hospitals still have concerns about the safety of other patients and their staff.

A spokesperson for the Georgia Hospital Association told Seiden it doesn’t support the bill in its current state.

“Our members would love nothing more than to reunite residents with families and return to a level of normalcy in regards to visitation. However, HB 290 as currently written would put long term care communities in jeopardy of being non-compliant with regulations put forth by CMS at the federal level. Georgia’s current directives for centers are in line with not only CMS regulations but also CDC and DPH guidance designed to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

The Georgia Healthcare Association is also opposed to the bill in its current form and sent the following statement to Seiden.

“Georgia’s hospitals are committed to providing safe and comprehensive care to all patients while also focusing on a safe work environment to our more than 150,000 employees. Family-centered care is an important part of wellness and recovery, and hospitals across the state follow carefully drafted policies to ensure inpatient visitation is available and appropriate for both the patient and our staff. As we have learned more about the spread of COVID-19 and how to avoid infection, policies have been updated to accommodate hospital visitation which allow families to help care for their loved ones while they are admitted to a hospital.”

The GHA spokesperson went on to say that it can’t support it in its current form because “We have concerns about mandates on hospitals that do not allow for flexibility to manage individual patient and staff needs. "

But Georgians who support the bill believe seeing loved ones is a personal choice. Gail Manter’s husband Tom has Parkinson’s and he lives in a nursing home about a mile from their house.

But because of COVID-19 restrictions, she hasn’t been able to see him in person or hug him in nearly a year.

“Just not getting to touch your loved one. I just want to sit by Tom and hold his hand. Just for a little while,” Manter said.

It’s the feeling that Gail Murkerson doesn’t want any family to go through like she did with the loss of her daughter.

“It’s not going to bring her back, but it will keep somebody else and another family from going through this trauma,” she said.

House Bill 290 remains in committee phase. Last week, lawmakers spent three hours listening to Georgians who voiced support and concerns.

Lawmakers are now considering those concerns and expected to make some additional changes this week before moving the bill forward.