RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously supported a bill that some advocates for the elderly strongly oppose.
In the case of COVID-19-related deaths or injuries, the proposal would set a higher bar for bringing civil lawsuits against certain hospices, home care organizations, assisted living facilities, adult day care centers and private providers licensed by the state during the pandemic.
In a letter sent ahead of the meeting to Committee Chairman Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke), the Virginia AARP claims this change would make it difficult to hold providers accountable when residents are harmed, neglected or abused.
“You would have to prove that a staff member was aware of what they were doing and aware of the fact that it was harmful,” said Natalie Snider, Virginia AARP’s Associate Director of Outreach and Advocacy. “We feel that it takes away the rights of patients and their families to seek recourse.”
These facilities were not included under Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order earlier this year, which clarified immunity for nursing homes under existing state law. The order emphasized that the response to COVID-19 would require healthcare providers to operate in ‘less than optimal’ conditions as they faced shortages of ventilators, PPE and staff.
“It is in the public interest to afford healthcare providers involved in the delivery of healthcare impacted by COVID-19 with adequate protection against liability for good faith actions or omissions taken in their efforts to combat this health emergency,” the executive order said.
Sen. Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill, said expanding these protections to other facilities that care for the elderly would allow them to navigate the pandemic without fear of frivolous lawsuits.
“That’s why we’re here. To try to foresee what some of the problems could be that would interfere with people being able to provide service during this pandemic,” Marsden said. “We need to make sure we protect the businesses that take care of these individuals.”
The advancement of this bill comes as long-term care facilities account for more than 50 percent of the 2,515 deaths Virginia has seen since the pandemic began.
Snider acknowledged that equipment and staff shortages are often out of a provider’s control. Yet with some safety inspections disrupted and in-person visits prohibited–effectively eliminating oversight–she said now is not the time to limit access to litigation.
“No family member who has lost a loved one due to neglect or abuse pursues this course of action lightly,”Snider said. “It should always be an option of last resort but it should be an option.”
Moving forward in the special session, the bill still has to win approval in the full Senate and the House before it can become law.