Senate Bill (SB) 25 and the accompanying constitutional amendment Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 19, authored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), passed unanimously.
Kolkhorst explained that the bill was a way to try to remedy the harm that had been created when trying to protect nursing home and other long-term care residents by “saving them to death.”
Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) said of the isolation, “We were saving the body, but we were killing the soul.”
As part of her presentation on the Senate floor, Kolkhorst emotionally told stories of families whose experiences, having been kept from their loved ones for months, were heart-wrenching. Families had explained to her how useless window and virtual visits are for those who have hearing trouble, can’t make eye contact, or are physically unable to come to a window.
She said the highest number of calls received by her office during the pandemic were for those calling about visiting their loved ones, saying things like, “I can’t get in to see my mother. A phone visit isn’t enough. I can see through the window that she’s been wearing the same clothes for three days.”
Stephanie Kirby, whose 28-year-old disabled son Petre lives in the Denton State Supported Living Center, is thrilled that the Senate passed the bill.
“I knew that I won’t have to worry about not seeing my son for 197 days again,” she told The Texan through tears of joy. Her son, who is not medically fragile but has the mental capacity similar to a 3-year-old, couldn’t understand why his mother didn’t visit. “I am so happy. Our voices were heard after feeling for so long like nobody cared,” Kirby said, expressing gratitude for the work done by Kolkhorst and others.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick congratulated Kolkhorst and thanked her for the work she had done to help residents and their families. Saturday, March 13 marked one year since Gov. Greg Abbott closed nursing homes to all visitors.
“We will pass a lot of bills this session, but this one will mean as much to the folks of Texas as any one we’ll pass,” Patrick said. Passing a bill like this was one of Patrick’s top listed priorities for the legislative session.
The bill included several floor amendments which clarified that the provisions protecting the right to have an essential caregiver are meant to protect this right only in times of a public health emergency, and are not meant to infringe on the ordinary right to receive visitors.
Amendments also clarified that a nursing home or other facility does not have the unilateral right to suspend an essential caregiver’s visitation unless it first gets approval from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
In his support of the bill, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) told the story of his own mother’s stay in a nursing home and how he knew the “touch and warmth shared by a family member or close friend” meant a great deal to her.
“We all understand that this may be the last year of somebody’s life and they were walled off. It is the last time a memory can be created or wisdom can be passed down,” Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) added in lauding the bill as fitting to be the first one passed in a non-emergency session of the Senate.
Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) pointed out that the suspension of visitation was a situation where the legislature needed to step in to help, but it was out of session for a year, “unable to do the job the people elected us to do.” He encouraged the Senate to keep this situation in mind as it looks at other legislation that proposes bringing the legislature back in session when the situation demands.
According to the Texas Constitution, only the governor can call the legislature into a special session.
Texas nursing home and other long-term care residents are still under visitation restrictions, and many are unable to see family members and friends on a regular basis.
“If we could just get the governor to include us in the opening,” Kirby said.