AUSTIN (KXAN) — State Sen. Judith Zaffirni says if her bill passes families will never again be “left in the dark” not knowing how many cases of communicable disease — like COVID-19 — have been found in their loved one’s nursing home, according to her testimony Tuesday at a Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing.
Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, said her bill, SB 930, would establish that the name and location of a long-term care facility with a confirmed communicable disease would be public information, as would the number of cases at the facility. Long-term care facilities include nursing, continuing care and assisted living facilities, according to the bill.
That information was kept from the public in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, hidden under health privacy laws by state and local health authorities. Health agencies kept the records secret even after requestors, including KXAN and numerous news outlets, clarified that they were not seeking individuals’ private health information.
“We were shocked by the frustration, the hopelessness and the anger expressed by family members, who not only could not visit their loved ones, but also were in the dark about what was happening in those facilities. Advocates for the elderly and journalists had a similar experience,” Zaffirini said at the committee hearing.
Donnis Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, said he was put in a frustrating position. His mother was living in a nursing home during the pandemic, and he couldn’t get information on whether the facility had an outbreak of the virus or not.
“I had a very high level of confidence in the quality of medical care at that facility. Had I not had that level of confidence, I would have been looking for someplace to move my mother,” Baggett said. “But where would I look? Because you’d run into that same brick wall at other facilities, if you were trying to find out whether they had had an outbreak and how serious that outbreak was.”
A committee substitute to Zaffirini’s bill would require local health authorities make the communicable disease information public and available through the Texas Public Information Act, she said.
Before information was available from the state, KXAN independently called, confirmed and mapped COVID-19 cases at more than two dozen individual Central Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities. But while many facilities did generally confirm cases, those nursing home operators were not obligated to respond to news requests, and few released specific numbers of cases and deaths to KXAN.
It was not until July 2020 that the Office of Attorney General ruled HHSC must release information on COVID -19 cases at facilities. After that, HHSC began posting information on its website, which is available here.
Two other lawmakers have filed similar bills. Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, authored SB 882; she chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, filed HB 3306.
SB 930 remains pending in the senate committee. Both SB 882 and HB 3306, which are identical, have been referred to Health and Human Services Committees.