Illinois Law May Mandate Nursing Home Virtual Visit Options

Nursing home residents isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic would be able to visit loved ones virtually under a proposal being considered by Illinois lawmakers, one that has the support of advocates in the space.

Doctor conducts telehealth appointment on a laptop
(TNS) — Nursing home residents isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic would be able to visit loved ones virtually under a proposal being considered by Illinois lawmakers.

Advocates say the bill would help to lessen the crushing loneliness experienced by people who’ve been stuck in long-term care facilities for more than a year without contact with family or friends.

The proposal, Senate Bill 2137, would require nursing homes to develop written policies to prevent social isolation, and to provide computers and videoconferencing equipment for face-to-face verbal communication, and religious or recreational activities.

Kelly Richards , the long-term care ombudsman for the state of Illinois, said the measure would fill a need that has become critical during the outbreak. Some residents have dementia, disabilities or unfamiliarity with technology that prevents them from seeing visitors online, and this would require nursing home staff to help them stay in touch.

“During this pandemic, so many people have been disconnected from their loved ones,” Richards said. “Residents should be afforded an opportunity to interact with the people they love.”

Some nursing homes began allowing in-person visits this year after the state prohibited them last year in March following the outbreak of COVID-19. But some still don’t allow in-person indoor visits, and some still don’t provide equipment for virtual visits, advocates said.

The measure was approved last week by the Health Committee in the state Senate, where its bipartisan sponsors, Sen. Jacqueline Collins , a Democrat from Chicago, and Sen. Donald DeWitte , a Republican from St. Charles, hope to pass it to the House this week.

The Health Care Council of Illinois, which represents nursing homes, recognizes the critical need for residents to keep in touch with loved ones and is working with lawmakers to help them understand the challenges that the bill poses as drafted, spokesman Kevin Heffernan said.

“We support the general spirit of this bill and are working with legislators to help them understand how our members are already facilitating virtual visits and challenges with implementing the measure as currently written,” he wrote in a statement.

Nursing home residents have taken the greatest brunt of the pandemic, with more than 77,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 10,000 deaths.

The state’s laws are silent regarding residents’ rights to virtual visitation, according to the AARP.

As an example of the importance of virtual visits, Lori Hendren , AARP’s associate state director, said her parents aren’t in a nursing home, but she wasn’t able to see them for more than a year due to COVID-19. But they were able to keep their spirits up by visiting with her and her children online.

“They’ve seen a lot of little girls reading books or making cookies over FaceTime,” she said. “Did it matter? Absolutely.”

Nursing homes, many of which report operating at a loss, have raised concerns about the costs of buying assistive technology, and training and devoting staff to help residents with Zoom calls and other communication.

The measure calls for funding to be provided by the fines paid by nursing homes for violations cited by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The measure would also provide for fines for nursing homes that didn’t comply with the virtual visits, but not until 2023.

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