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Colorado lawmakers join national push to guarantee hospital visitation, even during pandemics

Guests watch the opening day of Colorado's legislative session in January.
Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
Guests watch the opening day of Colorado's legislative session in January.

Elizabeth Reiter’s family was not by her side on Mother’s Day in 2020, when she was fighting pneumonia and a blood infection in a Denver hospital. The coronavirus pandemic was just starting to rage, and hospitals were keeping visitors out to limit the spread of the virus.

Elizabeth’s husband, Steve, says they spoke often on FaceTime, but the isolation drove Elizabeth into a deep depression.

“I dug into my bag of tricks, 20 years of tricks, to get her to smile,” he said. “And nothing worked.”

A few days later, Steve Reiter says a blood clot hit his wife’s lungs and killed her. He blames the hospital’s strict visitation policy for his wife’s death.

“I believe with everything in me, had we been allowed in, my wife would still be here, my boys would still have their mother,” he said.

Steve Reiter was one of dozens of people who traveled to the Capitol earlier this month to support Senate Bill 53. It would force Colorado hospitals to allow at least one visitor per day, even during an emergency like the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Dying of broken hearts’

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) says Reiter’s experience of losing a loved one who is isolated in the hospital has become too common during the pandemic.

He’s leading the effort to pass the new law that would guarantee some form of in-person visits, even during a pandemic.

“People are dying of broken hearts, they've died because they haven't had somebody there with them to help them make decisions when maybe they were on medication,” Sonnenberg said this month.

Hospital visitation policies have not been uniform during the pandemic. And the state health department got 52 complaints from people who thought they were too strict.

Senate Republicans
Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage

But Josh Ewing of the Colorado Hospital Association says the restrictions are necessary. He was the only person to testify against the bill during its first committee hearing.

“Restricting visitor access and reducing the number of people inside our health care facilities was key to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 and saving countless lives,” he said.

Ewing is also urging lawmakers to stay out of the debate.

“Senate Bill 53 doesn't provide the flexibility necessary for our health care facilities to respond accordingly to rapidly evolving public health scenarios,” he said.

But almost two years after losing his wife, Steve Reiter sees things differently. He’s leading a national group and lobbying states across the country to change the visitation laws.

“Let's balance it, and it got so out of balance,” he said. “Far too many people died. Because of that isolation, because they didn't have someone there watching.”

After three hours of emotional testimony this month, lawmakers including Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Denver) were swayed. She says strict visitation rules stopped her from being with her younger brother after he had a stroke in 2020.

“And usually what my family does when anybody goes to the hospital, we go, we set up shop,” she said. “We take over the emergency room and we take shifts. And that was robbed from us.”

Sen. Gonzalez delayed a vote on the bill to give the sponsors more time to answer questions. And this week, from his home in Sterling, Sen. Sonnenberg says he’s hopeful it will advance in some form.

“We're making headway and I think people are understanding … we may have swung the pendulum a little too far in the name of safety where we probably didn't actually make things any safer,” he said.

Colorado is not the only state where hospital visitation policies are under review. New Hampshire lawmakers had a tearful debate over the issue earlier this month. And Republicans in Oklahoma introduced a bill very similar to Colorado’s. The bills will be debated in the coming weeks.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.