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'Stopgap' Or Legal Threat? Connecticut Governor Limits Nursing Homes' Civil Immunity

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David Wurtzel
/
Connecticut Public
An employee at nursing facility Kimberly Hall South in Windsor visits with a resident through her window in May.

Gov. Ned Lamont this week announced he’ll end an executive order that had extended civil immunity to Connecticut nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the pandemic.

Lamont made the announcement Monday, saying he believed the state was now in better standing in the fight against COVID-19, compared to when the order was adopted.

“COVID was hitting us hard,” Lamont said. “We were bringing in a lot of retired nurses and others who were there to help out in hospitals, to help out in nursing homes, trying to keep up with something we were learning about every day. And at that point it was unfair, we thought, to hold people legally accountable for a situation that was so fast evolving.”

Nora Duncan, director of Connecticut AARP, has lobbied Lamont to overturn the order since it was signed last April.

“It makes the families of nursing home residents feel like a stopgap is back in place that has been missing since early on in the pandemic,” Duncan said.

She doesn’t expect a rush of people to start suing nursing homes once the protection expires March 1. Instead, termination of the order will hold long-term care facilities to account and embolden families to speak up if they feel their loved ones aren’t being properly cared for, she said.

“Some of this has exposed long-term problems that continue to exist that families have not been able to see in person or act upon, and now they can,” Duncan said.

Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, argued against ending the order.

“Nursing home operators are expressing disappointment,” he said.

Barrett said that when civil immunity is stripped away, administrators could face lawsuits over things they might not be able to control -- like the continued spread of COVID-19.

“They’ve made the case that all of the COVID-19 uncertainties and issues outside of their control that have been the hallmark of this epic and once-in-a-lifetime pandemic were still present in so many ways,” Barrett said. “Especially these new highly contagious variants of the virus that now threaten the older and medically compromised nursing home population. These ongoing unknowns have warranted -- and still do -- a different liability standard during the pandemic.”

Barrett said that even with the executive order in place, “blanket immunity” doesn’t exist. He pointed to the state Department of Public Health’s September closure of Three Rivers Nursing Home in Norwich as an example of a long-term care facility being held accountable amid the pandemic.

For the AARP’s Duncan, the end of civil immunity means she and her staff will turn to another measure aimed at increased accountability at long-term care facilities -- giving families the ability to monitor loved ones via video.

Another potential path to increased family face time with nursing home residents would be to peel back visitation restrictions. Lamont recently said that could happen in March if Connecticut’s COVID-19 infection rate continues to decline and vaccination rates keep increasing.

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