After Gov. Greg Abbott banned them from being with their loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities last year, Texans arose and demanded their rights be protected. State senators and state representatives heeded the call this session and delivered.

“[Senate Bill 25] gives statutory teeth to the long-term care residents’ right our group has fought for since July 12, 2020: the right to not be forcibly separated from every person in their lives,” Mary Nichols of Texas Caregivers for Compromise told Texas Scorecard.

“[Senate Joint Resolution 19] will allow voters to decide if that right should be constitutional. I believe it already is. But a constitutional amendment will make sure we never again ‘save them to death.’”

These bills came about as a response to actions unilaterally taken by Gov. Abbott in March of 2020, when he banned Texans from being with their family members in long-term care facilities out of fear of the coronavirus pandemic. Nichols said this hurt the health of the very people the ban was trying to save.

“In general, I can tell you that in addition to the number of people who have lost their lives due to the despondency, and weight loss, and rapid cognitive decline that just comes from the loss of the will to continue living in this kind of isolation, what we are also facing here is a mental health crisis both inside and outside of long-term care facilities,” Nichols said in a prior interview. “People inside long-term care facilities obviously do not want to live alone and isolated, and we have stripped families of that basic human right, which is a family relationship.”

Leading up to this year’s Texas legislative session, Texas Caregivers for Compromise fought for the right of family members to not be isolated, urging state senators and state representatives to act.

They responded. State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R–Brenham) was joined by 24 of her Republican and Democrat colleagues in authoring SB 25, and Kolkhorst also authored SJR 19. Both passed were unanimously by the Senate in March.

“These bills are an important step in righting at least one wrong of the state’s misguided and abusive COVID response,” former State Rep. Matt Rinaldi said.

SJR 19 is a proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution, recognizing as a constitutional right that residents of long-term care facilities may designate an “essential caregiver” whom facilities “may not prohibit” from visiting. SB 25 also recognizes this right, but requires in an emergency situation that caregivers would be allowed to visit for a minimum of two hours a day; it also requires that procedures are established so the caregiver and resident can have physical contact. In situations where in-person visits pose “a serious community health risk,” facilities may ask the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to suspend visits, but “no facility or program provider” can suspend visitation for more than 14 consecutive days, and not more than 45 days in a year.

SB 25 does say a facility or program provider “may revoke” someone’s “essential caregiver” status if they don’t follow the facility’s safety protocols, in which case the resident has the right to “immediately” appoint a new caregiver.  A successfully added amendment by State Rep. Keith Bell (R–Forney) puts in place an appeals process for the caregiver.

“Visiting a loved one in a nursing home should be a right, not a privilege,” Kolkhorst said about SB 25. “If another health emergency occurs, our state’s caregivers will always have a way to safely go inside a facility for scheduled visits and ensure that their loved one’s physical, social, and emotional needs are being met.”

Both bills were sponsored in the Texas House by State Rep. James Frank (R­­–Wichita Falls). “The negative impact of isolation was harmful to residents,” he said. “I think people just underestimate that need for human interaction with people.”

SB 25 passed the Texas House on Monday by a vote of 144-0, and SJR 19 passed by a vote of 142-1, with only State Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D–Austin) voting against it. A press inquiry about her vote was sent to her office, but Texas Scorecard received no response before publication.

While Nichols is happy with the result, she cautions citizens:

The legislation has flaws, and we will see likely those materialize if pandemic visitation prohibitions continue into September. But we are Texas Caregivers for Compromise, not Texas Caregivers for Perfect Justice, and legislators are pressured to strike a balance between the needs of residents and the interests of provider groups.

She recounted how TCC pushed this session for action on the situation, and the positive response they were met with.

“We specifically contacted the members of the House Human Services Committee and the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, and there we found ready advocates,” Nichols said. “Legislators were in new territory with ‘essential caregivers,’ a concept our group introduced to Texas early last year.”

She recognized certain members of the Legislature who were helpful in this fight. “The most responsive state representatives and senators were Frank, [Angela] Paxton, [Scott] Sanford, Kolkhorst, and, of course, my own representative, who offered up the floor amendment the other day, Keith Bell.”

SB 25 now heads for Gov. Abbott’s desk, while Texans will vote on the proposed constitutional amendment in SJR 19 on November 2 of this year.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.