Tuesday, 21 September 2021 19:30

New laws protect visitation rights for N.C. patients, long-term care residents

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RALEIGH — Two recently passed laws will guarantee visitation from family members and religious leaders for hospital patients and residents of long-term care facilities.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed Clifford’s Law on Sept. 10 and the Jeff Rieg Law on Sept. 16.

Clifford’s Law, which was championed by Rep. Ben Moss, R-Richmond, “ensures nursing home and long-term care residents are allowed a visitor at least twice per month during declared disasters and emergencies,” according to a press release from House Republicans.

The law directs the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services — currently Dr. Mandy Cohen — to consult with licensed nursing home directors and other stakeholders to establish visitation protocols during an emergency that “results in the suspension or curtailment of a facility's normal visitation policy for any reason.”

Under the law, patients have the right to designate one pre-approved visitor and one alternate, who would be allowed to visit the patient at least twice a month during a declared emergency.

The bill was named after 63-year-old Clifford Jerniagan.

According to the resolution part of the bill, Jerniagan, who has the mentality of a 3-year-old, has been in a long-term care facility for 53 years.

His mother used to visit him every week for 13 years until her death, and his sister has visited weekly for the past 40 years, according to the text of the bill.

Over the last year, with his sister as his only visitor, Jernigan reportedly lost 25 pounds and a staff member reportedly told his sister that he has been “mourning himself to death.”

Jernigan “is only one of many thousands of residents in nursing homes and combination homes who have gravely suffered because of restricted visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the bill.

Moss told the RO earlier this month that he was proud to be a sponsor of the legislation.

Other primary sponsors were Reps. Jimmy Dixon, R-Onslow, Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, and Donna White, R-Johnston. White is a registered nurse and aging specialist, according to her legislative page.

“We have all heard the stories or experienced loved ones in long-term care who have suffered immensely due to isolation because of COVID-19 visitation restrictions,” Dixon said in a statement Tuesday. “Clifford’s Law will ensure families have access to their loved ones, which is vital to the mental health and well-being of long-term care residents.”

The Jeff Rieg Law “guarantees the right of patients to have a clergy member visit them in the hospital,” according to a press release.

"It is named after Jeff Rieg, who spent his final days in a Greenville hospital after being hit by a car. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, his family and pastor were restricted from visiting him. After Rep. Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort) got involved, the hospital ultimately allowed the family and a pastor to visit him before he died."

“This is a significant and meaningful piece of legislation that upholds the religious freedoms and liberties of North Carolinians,” Kidwell said. “I am so sorry that the Rieg family had to suffer through this, but I hope it is a comfort to know that Jeff was the inspiration for making this law happen.”

Clifford's Law passed unanimously in both chambers; the Jeff Rieg Law passed unanimously in the Senate and 98-19 in the House.