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Protecting Nursing Home Residents’ Right to Safe Visitations This Holiday Season

December 23, 2021
Beverley Laubert, National Ombudsman Program Coordinator, ACL

In the midst of the holiday season, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) delivered good news for residents of nursing homes across the country: Visitation is now allowed for all residents at all times.

Living in a long-term care facility, whether for short-term or long-term care, comes with many rights such as the right to receive quality care and services, to engage in activities of choice, and to receive visitors.

The value of social connection with family and friends has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic as visits were interrupted. It is clear that connection with friends and family are vital for residents’ quality of life. Following the infection prevention and control guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CMS has gradually updated visitation guidance. Guidance released in November states:

While previously acceptable during the public health emergency, facilities can no longer limit frequency and length of visits for residents, the number of visitors, or require advance scheduling of visits.

Of course, visits must be safe for all parties, especially at this time. That’s why CMS established several core principles of COVID-19 infection prevention to support safe visits. Visitors should expect to be screened for COVID-19 exposure, practice good hand hygiene, and wear a mask when required. Facilities should clean often, ensure staff wear appropriate personal protective equipment, and post information to remind visitors of necessary precautions. Residents and staff should be tested for COVID-19 to comply with separate CMS testing guidance. To further clarify expectations, CMS issued Frequently Asked Questions this morning that are a helpful resource for facilities, residents, and visitors.

In addition to those core principles, an important factor in sustained visitation is vaccination against COVID-19, including having a vaccine booster dose. CMS now publishes vaccination data for each nursing home. Nationally, an average of 87% of residents and 77.3% of staff per facility are vaccinated. However, there is a wide range among individual nursing facilities. On this CMS COVID-19 nursing home data page, below the national numbers, is a link to a list of all nursing homes and their vaccination rates, among other information.

ACL’s Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman Programs collects data from State Long-Term Care Ombudsman programs through the National Ombudsman Reporting System. Ombudsman data provides a rich source of information about the issues that residents, families, and others report to Ombudsman representatives for resolution. Between October 2019 and September 2020, Ombudsman programs received a dramatic increase (485%) in complaints about visitation in nursing homes compared to the previous year. This increase is even more remarkable because overall complaints dropped during this period as Ombudsman programs stopped in-person visits to facilities in order to protect residents.

CMS guidance affects nursing facilities certified to receive Medicare or Medicaid payment for resident care, and Ombudsman program data indicates that this issue is not limited to nursing homes. Visitation complaints also increased in residential care communities not regulated by CMS. While many states extended federal guidance to those homes, visitation restrictions varied around the country. Ombudsman programs are committed to supporting residents of all types of long-term care facilities.

When Ombudsman representatives returned to in-person advocacy, residents welcomed them with happiness and relief. Likewise, reunited families and friends are experiencing a more joyful holiday season.

More Resources:

Last modified on 12/23/2021

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