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It could take until the next health emergency to see impact of patient visitor law

A photo of a dimly lit room with a ICU hospital bed in the center of it.
Armond Feffer
Under a new law, hospitals like SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in Lake Saint Louis, pictured in November 2020, are required to allow patients to have an in-person essential caregiver, even during a state health emergency.

The true impact of a Missouri patient rights law enacted this past legislative session likely won’t be known until there is another health emergency.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed the No Patient Left Alone Act, which requires health care facilities, like hospitals or long-term care facilities, to allow for in-person visitors.

Facilities must also allow patients to designate an essential caregiver for in-person contact during a public state of emergency. The law allows for facilities to petition for a temporary suspension of in-person visitors.

Lawmakers cited both constituent and personal stories in which people were barred from visiting friends or family members who were hospitalized or in nursing homes.

Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, who was one of the sponsors of the bill, said he wanted the impact of the bill to be simple.

“When people are put into a health care facility, they can have at least one person that can be with them at all times when it's needed,” Black said.

The bill initially had pushback from both health care agencies and some Democrats but went through revisions. The final version received unanimous support in the Senate. In the House, many Democrats who voted no on the first version ended up changing their votes to present.

Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, D-St. Louis, was one of those lawmakers who, while feeling better about the bill, still wasn't ready to vote yes.

“I wanted the experts to have final say on what's going on during a pandemic,” Appelbaum said.

Now months after the law has gone into effect, neither Appelbaum nor Black have heard from either constituents or health care facilities.

Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, said he’s not seeing pushback from hospitals.

“Hospitals are highly regulated to begin with. We're very used to, once rules have been established, trying to figure out how to work within them,” Dillon said.

During the pandemic itself, Dillon said the unknowns about COVID-19 and the lack of protection against it, other than personal protective equipment, led to hospitals trying to minimize the number of people allowed in a facility.

“There is a chance that in some cases, we probably erred on the side of being too cautious,” Dillon said. “And that clearly became part of the narrative of why some lawmakers believe that we needed legislation to set some standards.”

Dillon said that by the time the law was making its way through the legislature, most hospitals were already implementing open visitation policies.

If a future emergency does happen, Dillon said, he believes hospitals will be better prepared, “whether it's through the implementation of legislation that sets boundaries, or it is learning from the people who are on the front lines about how to best approach it.”

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.