NC bill would let clergy see hospital patients during emergencies

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – More than a year since her father passed away, Joanna Rieg hopes her family’s struggle to see him in the hospital during his final days will lead to changes across North Carolina.

Jeff Rieg went to the emergency room last May after being hit by a truck at his home in Beaufort County.

He was able to come back home, but within a couple days Joanna said he had to go back to the ER and became unresponsive less than an hour after getting there.

He was transferred to Greenville for additional treatments, but Joanna said it became clear he was near the end of his life.

“We had to really fight to get in to see him. My mom actually did the fighting for us as a family to see him,” Joanna said.

Her father was a man of faith as well, having formed a close bond with his pastor who the family wanted to be able to get in and pray for him in his final moments.

“Not having that for us was just kind of a missing piece and knowing how important that was for my dad,” she said. “Walking with us through those last moments with my dad in the hospital, we were not able to have that.”

Their experience prompted state lawmakers to pass the Jeff Rieg Law, which would guarantee that a clergy member could visit a patient as long as they pass health screenings and do not test positive for infectious diseases. Click here to view.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill this week following a 98-19 vote in the House earlier this year. The bill is now awaiting action by Gov. Roy Cooper (D).

“Now, they may have the opportunity to have someone in there with them to sort of hold their hand, to hug them, to cry with them, to listen, to offer words of encouragement, to pray, whatever it is they may need in those moments,” said Joanna Rieg.

Jason Little, lead pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Knightdale, said it’s been “frustrating” at times during the pandemic trying to provide comfort to families and patients while being mindful of the health care facilities trying to minimize the risk of allowing additional people inside.

“Just like they’re receiving physical care and attention in perhaps those last days or hours of life, I believe that spiritual care in those moments is vital as well,” he said. “We understand, fully understand, that the last year to year-and-a-half has been incredibly challenging for every area of life.”

The North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents hospitals across North Carolina, did not support the bill.

“While we support the role of faith in healing, the bill did not provide any way for us to protect our patients, or their visiting clergy, in extenuating circumstances,” wrote Cynthia Charles, a spokesperson for the NCHA, in an email.

The bill is part of a broader effort by some state legislators to guarantee patients are able to have visitors even during disasters or public health emergencies.

A separate bill, the No Patient Left Alone Act (click here: https://www.ncleg.gov/BillLookUp/2021/S191), was born out of the frustrations some family members conveyed to lawmakers when the pandemic began and visitation was cut off entirely in some circumstances.

It’s still pending in the legislature. The bill contains a provision that if hospitals need to close off visitation entirely, they would have to develop alternative protocols to allow visitation “to the greatest extent safely possible.”

Charles said, “We do everything in our power to ensure patients continue to experience the healing power of companionship, and the latest version of the bill ensures that we can continue to provide those experiences while complying with very specific federal rules.”

Members of the House and Senate are meeting with officials from the state Department of Health and Human Services about the bill, as the agency has raised concerns about state officials still being able to respond in emergency situations.

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