Lawmakers push to require nursing homes to offer virtual visits
SPRINGFIELD -- Lawmakers and advocates are calling for the Illinois General Assembly to pass a bill that would require nursing homes to offer virtual visits for residents to prevent social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AARP Illinois, the senior advocacy group which helped craft Senate Bill 2137, held a virtual news conference Tuesday to emphasize the necessity of such legislation as the ongoing pandemic prevents nursing home residents from in-person visits and participating in other daily social activities.
SB 2137, modeled after a law that already exists in New Jersey, is sponsored by Sen. Jacqueline Collins, a Chicago Democrat, and co-sponsored by Sen. Donald DeWitte, a St. Charles Republican. State Rep. Anna Moeller, a Elgin Democrat, is sponsoring the measure in the House.
AARP associate state director Lori Hendren noted there have been over 70,000 positive COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, and over 10,300 virus-related deaths in Illinois -- or 43 percent of the state's total death count -- have been nursing home residents.
"There should be no hesitation, we feel, from elected officials," Hendren said. "This is a compassionate plan that has been worked through with listening sessions, and we want to make sure the voices and the faces of everyone we love are accessible."
The bipartisan effort would create social isolation prevention policies, Collins said, to ensure nursing home residents have the right and opportunity to see their loved ones.
Melissa Rowley, of Chicago, shared her experience with nursing home visitation restrictions as the legal guardian of her 88-year-old cousin, Dorothy, who was developmentally disabled.
When the pandemic restricted in-person visits, Rowley purchased her cousin a device so that she could communicate with her virtually and get a better idea of Dorothy's mental state outside of updates from nurse practitioners.
Rowley said "it was like pulling teeth" to get the nurses to assist Dorothy with using the technology. Dorothy eventually contracted COVID-19 and Rowley turned to hospice services, which helped connect her virtually as Dorothy's condition worsened.
Rowley said when she was finally able to visit virtually with her cousin, it was to say her final goodbyes, as Dorothy lost her battle with the virus.
"As devastating as it was to do this virtually, I was just so grateful that I was able to at least see her and virtually tell her all the things that everyone would want to hear in that situation," Rowley said.
"I just can't express how much I believe that during these difficult times, virtual visitation is the least we can do to help our loved ones in nursing homes to get through all their fear and isolation and depression from being cut off from everyone, in the context of the people that they love."
If the bill becomes law, long-term care facilities would be required to adopt and implement a set of policies for virtual visitation, such as the creation of individualized visitation plans, cleaning and sanitizing protocols for the devices, as well as designating a person to train staff, social workers, or volunteers to directly assist residents with technology use.
Illinois state long-term care ombudsman Kelly Richardson said nursing home residents continue to suffer the effects of social isolation and loneliness as a result of the pandemic, which she said can lead to irreversible damage to their quality of health.
"In fact, 2020 research shows that the harsh consequences of isolation and loneliness on resident quality of life are alarming," Richardson said. "There's a 50 percent increased risk for developing dementia, a 32 percent increase of stroke, and nearly a fourfold increased risk of death among heart failure patients. And it doesn't have to be this way."
While Richardson said she believes there is no substitute for human connection, she said she is hopeful this bill would serve as a safety net until in-person visitation restrictions can safely be lifted.
For a funding source, the bill notes nursing home operators may apply for civil monetary penalty funds from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The civil money penalty funds program aims "to improve quality of life by equipping nursing home staff, administrators and stakeholders with technical tools and assistance to enhance resident care." It's paid into by fines on nursing homes penalized for noncompliance with Medicare and Medicaid participation requirements.
Sponsors of the bill said facilities may also request other state and federal aid available for nursing homes to assist in complying with this proposal.
"The federal government allowed the state, working with the governor and Department of Human Services, to expand $1.7 million to assist in technology apparatus and devices for our community care individuals," Collins said. "So I assume that we will have federal funding coming as well, based on the direction that the administration is taking in reference to COVID-19."
SB 2137 passed unanimously out of the Senate Health Committee and is now awaiting consideration of the full Senate.