Tennessee hospitals concerned over legislation allowing relaxed COVID-19 visitation

A provision in legislation passed Oct. 30 by Tennessee lawmakers has sparked concern from hospitals in the state.

The provision, which has not yet received the governor's signature, would require hospitals — when a disaster, emergency or public health emergency for COVID-19 has been declared — to allow a patient to have at least one family member with them at the hospital as long as the family member tests negative for coronavirus and is not showing symptoms of COVID-19 or another virus or communicable disease.

In a statement shared with Becker's Hospital Review, Tennessee Hospital Association President and CEO Wendy Long, MD, expressed some concern.

"We do have some concerns regarding a late addition to the legislation dealing with visitation for COVID patients and how that provision will ultimately be implemented. We have reached out to leadership and members of the General Assembly, and they have expressed to us, as well as in committee meetings, that the legislative intent was for end-of-life scenarios," her statement reads. "We are already in discussion with the House and Senate to better clarify their intent when they reconvene in regular session in January."

The provision related to hospital visitation is only one part of the legislation. A provision that would ban government entities, including public schools, from having mask requirements when a county does not have at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the previous 14 days is also getting some pushback, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Stephen Threlkeld, MD, co-chair of the infection control program at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, told the newspaper this provision puts in jeopardy being able to quickly respond to pandemic challenges. He also told the newspaper that "in general, physicians like public health to be decided as locally as possible, provided that there are people with adequate training and expertise necessary to make good decisions."

Measures approved by lawmakers would also prohibit a governmental entity, school or local education agency from mandating that someone receive a COVID-19 vaccine or mandating that a private business or school "require proof of vaccination to access the private business's or school's premises or facilities or to receive the benefits of the private business's or school's products or services."

Legislation does clarify that healthcare facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs would not be considered a private business or governmental entity, to the extent that the facility must follow certain federal rules to participate in the programs that may be contrary to the state legislation. In other words, these facilities are still subject to the emergency regulation released by CMS Nov. 4 that requires COVID-19 vaccination for eligible employees at healthcare facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The Tennessee Hospital Association praised this part of the legislation.

"THA worked closely with legislative leadership to ensure hospitals would not be put in a position where adherence to state law would compromise their ability to provide high quality patient care and comply with federal requirements for participation in Medicare and Medicaid," said Dr. Long. "We are pleased that the legislation that ultimately passed recognizes the unique role hospitals play in meeting the needs of their communities and will allow hospitals to continue to serve patients with Medicare and Medicaid insurance coverage."

The legislation would still need the governor's signature before becoming law.

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