Arkansas legislators are liking what they see in the “No Patient Left Behind” bills before their houses.

The bills, generally, require that one parent, spouse, guardian advocate or other “support person” be permitted to be present with a patient in a hospital, office of a health care professional or long-term care facility.

“During this pandemic we have seen what COVID-19 and isolation can do to patients,” said State Rep. Fran Cavenaugh (R-60th District, including Walnut Ridge and part of Greene County). “It creates conditions that are particularly harmful to patients with Alzheimers or dementia. Cutting them off from their families – who may be the only people they recognize – can let them deteriorate to a degree no one could have imagined.”

The isolation and loneliness, Cavenaugh said, can even hasten the deaths of some patients.

“I can appreciate the need for safety during the pandemic,” she said, “but the cure can’t be worse than the disease.”

Cavenaugh added every patient should likewise have an advocate. “Every patient needs one,” she said, “and no one should ever not have one.”

State Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-57th District, including Paragould) agreed.

“I think this is a very good bill,” he said. “Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve had multiple families reach out to me, with kids, with elderly parents, that they wanted to see, that they couldn’t.”

Gazaway acknowledged the restrictions were causing “great heartbreak” to both the family members and the patients themselves. “For one dementia patient who was used to seeing his family it was really hard,” he said, “especially near the end.”

Gazaway added that although the family knew the end was near, restrictions due to the COVID threat had prevented them from seeing him.

The House legislation (HB1061) acknowledges the need for restrictions due to COVID, but also noted unintended consequences the restrictions had that affected non-COVID patients the same way. According to section 1(b)(6) of the bill: “Some of these patients have been required to be alone for the entire course of their treatment and in some cases have died alone.”

The Senate legislation (SB19), calls (among other things) for medical facilities to “[a]llow a patient to choose a support person to accompany the patient during a medical appointment or facility stay unless the presence of the support person infringes on the rights or safety of others or is medically or therapeutically contraindicated.”

Senators contacted similarly expressed support.

“This is a good bill,” said State Sen. Ronald Caldwell (R-23rd District, including Newport and Wynne). He related that personal experiences had given him a good perspective on the need for support for people to have access to a given patient. He said his wife had undergone heart surgery in June, major cancer surgery in October and hospitalization for COVID in November. “I understand the issue of not trying to spread COVID,” Caldwell said. He added, however, that if a family were involved, then a hospitalized COVID patient has also likely exposed the family as well. “I had COVID,” Caldwell said, “but I helped my wife who couldn’t do anything for herself.”

In addition he said, the requirement for a support person could serve to give professional caregivers a rest. “It gives relief to the staff if there’s a family member to take over,” he said.

Caldwell pointed out that there appears to be no reason to bar a person without COVID to act as a support person for a non-COVID patient.

State Sen. Blake Johnson (R-20th District, including Greene, Lawrence and Clay counties) expressed similar enthusiasm for the legislation. “I 100 percent agree,” he said. “A patient needs an advocate, even in a nursing home.”

Johnson said that it’s important for a patient to receive good quality care. “There are no downsides,” he said. “If you are sick enough not to be responsible for your own needs, then you definitely need a person to articulate those needs.”

Medical facility authorities were not as enthusiastic about the legislation, however.

“Arkansas Methodist Medical Center recognizes the benefit and importance of having family participate in the care of the patient,” said AMMC Chief Executive Officer Barry Davis in a written statement. “Our staff has made every effort to accommodate visitors while maintaining a safe environment.”

On the other hand, Davis continued, individual hospitals need the flexibility to control visitor policies.

“The Arkansas Hospital Association is working with legislators on House Bill 1061,” he said, “to come up with a safe solution that will benefit hospitals, patients and visitors.”

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