Caregivers to the Capitol: Activist hopes emergency order on visitation becomes law

“I just want to make something very clear: I’m looking for a real hug. I’m not looking for a virtual hug,” said Mary Daniel.
Published: Jan. 28, 2022 at 7:56 AM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - “I just want to make something very clear: I’m looking for a real hug. I’m not looking for a virtual hug,” said Mary Daniel.

As the founder of the “Florida Caregivers for Compromise,” Daniel made that statement while meeting with a task force on long-term care, put together by Gov. Ron DeSantis, in Aug. 2020.

At that time, Floridians in long-term care had spent almost six months in COVID lockdown.

Daniel created “Caregivers for Compromise” to find a way to bring in-person visits back to residents.

The governor revised visitation guidelines the very next month.

This allowed residents to designate essential caregivers for in-person visitation, and 16 months later, that order remains in effect.

However, each new COVID wave brings fears of more restrictions and a need to make sure this never happens again.

That’s why Daniel is taking on a new role.

In 2020, her story went viral after she took a job as a dishwasher at her husband’s memory care facility in Jacksonville, just so she could see him in person.

But two years later, she’s heading to the Florida Capitol, talking with lawmakers to turn the governor’s order into law.

Armed with a stack of books, Daniel headed to the capitol on Jan. 18 to tell lawmakers their story.

“One book for every representative and every senator for the state of Florida. It makes me emotional. To show them what this looks like. To show them what happened,” Daniel said.

By her side was one of the Big Bend’s House Representatives: Jason Shoaf.

Shoaf filed House Bill 987, The Essential Caregiver Bill, after hearing Daniel’s story and the passage of similar legislation in Texas.

In fact, Texas not only passed an essential caregiver’s law in June of 2021, the state also added it to its constitution this past November.

“As the legislature, it’s our job to take these ideas and to codify them into law,” Rep. Shoaf (R-District 7), said.

As of Jan. 27, 2022, the version of this bill allows an essential caregiver at least two hours of daily, in-person visitation.

It also allows a facility a one-time visitation suspension, up to seven days, if in-person visits pose a serious health risk to residents.

Some exceptions to this would include “end of life” situations.

“The governor did a great job. He jumped into action. He helped. He worked with groups, like Mary’s, and he made it to where we could have access to our loved ones, but we shouldn’t have to worry about that in the future,” Rep. Shoaf (R) District 7 said.

For the Rodgers family of Tallahassee, that access didn’t come soon enough.

They lost their matriarch, Mae, on Christmas day in 2020.

Her last year was spent mostly at a window, wondering why her daughter couldn’t come inside.

“Susan should have been able to focus on her mom. Instead, she was having to focus on laws and decrees, and that’s not the way it should be,” Mae’s son-in-law, Paul Rodgers, said.

While their fight is over, the Rodgers want consistency for other families, worrying what happens once the governor leaves office.

“What if somebody else just says ‘Nah, we don’t think there’s a need for this?’” Rodgers said.

That fear is why Daniel shared her family’s story in the “Caregivers for Compromise” book.

She says a law doesn’t just give her family peace of mind, but also her mother, in long-term care, who is worried about another lockdown.

“If this is placed into law, she knows that one person, from her family or friends, will be there every single day to see her,” Daniel said.

But it’s not just families and lawmakers in this conversation.

Groups, like the Florida Healthcare Association, represent nursing homes across the state.

While not yet taking a formal stance on the bill, they agree: visitation is essential.

“We understand that there should be some sort of critical person, a husband, a wife, a spouse, a friend, to be able to come in at any point and see their resident or the patient, again, as long as they can safely do it,” Reed, the FHCA executive director, said.

So, while lawmakers and lobbyists hammer out the details, Daniel continues her mission, making sure lawmakers know real hugs are essential and visits behind glass windows can never happen again.

On Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2022, HB 987 passed the House Finance and Facilities subcommittee in a unanimous vote.

There is another bill regarding visitation in the Senate called the “No Patient Left Alone Act.”

This bill gives broad visitation rights for hospital patients and long-term care residents.

This past Sunday, Gov. DeSantis went on Twitter to give his support for a visitation rights bill in Florida.

But for caregivers, it all comes down to language.

They said hospitals and long-term care are different facilities and deserve separate protections.

As for what’s next for this bill, Representative Shoaf said HB 987 now heads to the “Children, Families and Seniors Committee.”

He’s working to schedule that hearing quickly.

As for the other bill, Rep. Shoaf said they’re having conversations to see where they can find common ground with 11 weeks left in this year’s session.

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