More rights for hospital visitors endorsed by committee

·3 min read

Mar. 9—CONCORD — Visitors would have greater rights to see seriously ill loved ones in the hospital under legislation a key House committee narrowly endorsed Tuesday.

The 11-10 vote of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee followed four separate meetings over two days.

Critics of the compromise said it would tie the hands of hospital administrators during a crisis.

The biggest dispute was over where to put the protections in this bill (HB 1439) in state law.

House Democrats and the New Hampshire Hospital Association wanted them added to the Patient Bill of Rights that must be publicly posted on the wall of all health care centers.

But the bill endorsed Tuesday would put these enhanced protections into the state law governing hospital licensing, so that all providers would be accountable, said Rep. Erica Layon, R-Derry, who authored the final rewrite.

"This protects both the patients' rights to have their visitors, and it protects the hospital as well," Layon said. "This seemed to be the least burdensome way to protect everyone's rights."

After a number of language changes, Layon's final version requires the new visitor protections to be posted inside health care centers as well as on the facility's website.

Several committee members said the patient bill of rights "had no teeth" and administrators could ignore it on a case-by-case basis.

"We have seen too many times, for the convenience of the administration, where people have lost these visitor rights," said Rep. Betty Gay, R-Salem.

Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole, said that for the past two years hospital staff have been under enormous stress with no evidence anyone acted out of convenience.

"It was awful for the people who were excluded and it was awful for the people who died alone, but to say that was done during a time of inconvenience ... as far as I'm concerned, it was reprehensible," Weber said.

A short time later, Gay apologized for her "choice of words."

House Speaker Pro Tem Kimberly Rice, R-Hudson, championed the bill. In January she was moved to tears, speaking about how she dealt with the deaths of her mother and younger brother as well as the extended hospitalization of her stepfather.

"We have done a huge disservice to our elderly who have been left alone without their loved ones, and I just don't know how, as a society, we can do that," Rice testified.

She titled the legislation the "No Patient Left Alone Act."

Rep. Gary Woods, D-Bow, a retired doctor, said the pandemic proved those running hospitals need to be able to quickly change visitor practices.

"There has to be a captain of the ship and it can't be one family coming in saying, 'I want this, it's my right' and the next family comes in saying, 'I want this additional thing, it's my right,'" said Woods, former president of the New Hampshire Medical Society.

"There has to be someone in charge. What I am hearing is you don't trust physicians."

But Rep. Leah Cushman, R-Weare, a contract nurse, said the pleas of too many families were ignored, which is why this bill is needed.

"I am frankly fatigued by the excuses of the New Hampshire (Hospital) Association that this is not possible and you need the flexibility to keep family members out," Cushman said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com