It’s time for Kansas and the nation to restore full visitation rights at nursing homes

June 19, 2021 3:33 am

Advocates are calling on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to restore nursing home residents’ full right to visitation, writes Camille Russell. “The risk of contracting and dying from COVID has significantly decreased, while the risks from isolation, loneliness and neglect continue,” she writes. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Camille Russell is the Kansas state long-term care ombudsman.

Nursing homes are charged with providing both quality of life and quality of care to residents. Embedded in nursing home regulation is the definition of person-centered care: To focus on the resident as the locus of control, support the resident in making their own choices and having control over their daily lives. As humans, we all want that.

Advocates in every state are uniting to call on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to restore nursing home residents’ full right to visitation. The risk of contracting and dying from COVID has significantly decreased, while the risks from isolation, loneliness and neglect continue.

Our state agency, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services has followed CMS’ lead on issuing guidance throughout the pandemic, not only for federally regulated homes but for state licensed homes such as assisted living and home plus facilities. While guidance issued in September 2020 and March 2021 has allowed more indoor and outdoor visitation, it has done little to address the significant needs of many residents.

This is in large part because the guidance gives facilities great discretion in scheduling visits and limiting the length, frequency and location of visits. Of greatest concern is that the guidance fails to address those residents suffering the most from neglect and poor care: residents for whom one or two 30-minute visits per week are not sufficient.

Under the federal Older Americans Act, every state is required to have an ombudsman program that addresses complaints and advocates for improvements in the long-term care system.

Ombudsman programs help residents, family members and others understand residents’ rights and support residents in exercising their rights guaranteed by law.

Residents often tell ombudsmen they would rather die from COVID-19 than continue to be neglected, disrespected, isolated and imprisoned in what should be their home.

Their basic rights have been stripped because of the address at which they reside. When they entered that home, they were told they had the same rights as any other citizen, but that has not been the case. It has gone on too long. Indeed, we have lost people living in nursing homes from the very health and safety measures that were put there to save them.

Never again can we let this happen. It is time to fully restore their rights. They have demonstrated they will do what is important for them, and their neighbors, by vaccinating at some of the highest levels of any population. They did so to gain their freedom and to see their loved ones.

We owe it to the residents to respect their efforts. We owe it to them to honor their rights, including choice, as equivalent to any other person residing in our country.

You can help! We urge you to contact CMS officials and urge them to fully restore visitation rights, contact members of Congress and ask them to urge CMS to fully restore these rights, contact Gov. Laura Kelly and ask her to weigh in with CMS, and use your social media to bring awareness for others to reach out to these officials.

Somewhere, the necessary balance between what is important to people — things that make residents happy, content, give them a reason to live — and the things important for people — health and safety and sense of belonging in a self-defined community — has been lost. We must raise the awareness of what person-centered care truly means.

COVID-19 has made it clear that the “system” must have widespread education on person-centered thinking to adequately develop and implement person-centered plans that result in person-centered care.

Additionally, there must be sufficient staff to attain this support and care. It is essential to balance what is important to people with what is important for people. Continuing to restrict visitation rights is sending the wrong message to the administration of nursing facilities.

You can find contact information for a Kansas long-term care ombudsman on the website or by calling toll free 877-662-8362.

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Camille Russell
Camille Russell

Camille Russell is a lifelong advocate for fellow Kansans. Previously a regional ombudsmen, she now serves as the Kansas State Long-Term Care Ombudsman. She served under two Kansas attorneys general as director of the Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation Unit. A relentless supporter for person-centered care, she is a credentialed person-centered thinking trainer with The Learning Community for Person Centered Practices and an ambassador for Charting the LifeCourse.