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The Elaine Sullivan Act

Location: Washington, DC


The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Jackson) is recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. JACKSON of Illinois. Mr. Speaker, today I introduced legislation, H.R. 2560, that is specifically designed to save lives and reduce suffering. It is a small, but significant, measure to protect the voiceless and the vulnerable.

In an instant, a wrong turn, a sudden fall, a missed step, someone, indeed anyone, can find himself or herself in a crisis and in need of emergency medical care.

In California alone, nearly 10 million people require emergency room care every year. And of those, 1.5 million arrive in critical condition. In fact, nationwide, nearly 1 million people arrive in emergency rooms each year unconscious or physically unable to give informed consent to their care.

What happens or what fails to happen in the critical, precious, and immediate moments after the single split second of an emergency can be the difference between healing and heartbreak, between calamity and recovery, between life and death.

Consider the story of Elaine Sullivan. A very active 71-year-old woman, Elaine fell at home while getting into her bathtub. When paramedics arrived, they realized that injuries to her mouth and head had made her unable to communicate, or as the hospital later discovered, to give informed consent for her own care.

Although stable for the first few days, she began to slip into critical condition. Despite having her daughter's contact information clearly indicated on her chart, the hospital failed to notify her family for 6 days. Tragically, just hours later, Elaine Sullivan died alone in the hospital.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Elaine Sullivan's daughter, Jan, and granddaughter, Laura, turned their personal pain to public action. Jan and Laura Greenwald went to work to make sure that what happened to their loved one would not happen to others.

From their research, the Greenwalds learned about other incidents like their own, in which families of hospitalized patients were not notified at all or notified after lengthy delay. Although uncommon, these stories were alarming; but, alas, they were avoidable.

Let me be clear. Most hospitals notify the next of kin of unconscious emergency room arrivals relatively quickly. However, emergency rooms are extremely high pressure, intense, and sometimes chaotic environments. According to statistics compiled by the American College of Emergency Physicians, more than 88 percent of emergency room doctors surveyed reported moderate to severe overcrowding in their department. In the hustle and bustle of the ER, despite the professionalism and dedication of staff, there are real risks that a simple phone call may not be able to be made in a timely fashion.

In the case of Elaine Sullivan, the phone call was not made. In her memory and honor, I have introduced this bill so that in the future phone calls to loved ones will always be made. The bill, the Elaine Sullivan Act, is sensible. It requires hospitals that receive Medicare funding to make reasonable efforts to contact a family member, specified health care agent, or surrogate decision-maker of incapacitated patients within 24 hours of arrival at the emergency department.

The bill is realistic. Modeled after State laws in Illinois and California, the bill recognizes that such notifications would be difficult and even impractical in certain instances and under certain circumstances. Therefore, the 24-hour notification requirement does not apply when hospitals implement a disaster or mass casualty program or during a declared state of emergency or other local mass casualty situation.

The bill is constructive. The legislation makes Federal grants available for the next 5 years to qualified not-for-profit organizations to establish and operate a national next of kin registry. As a high-speed, electronic free search service, the voluntary registry would help hospitals and government agencies to locate family members of the injured, missing, and the deceased.

How would the registry work? Consider for a moment just one distressing, but relevant, scenario. Your loved one, say your spouse, is on a business trip. She is out of state and on her own. On the way, she is involved in a serious head-on collision. Unconscious and unable to communicate, she is rushed to the nearest hospital. Unbeknownst to you, your wife lay comatose, fighting for her life, miles from home.

Doctors and nurses work feverishly to provide emergency medical care to a patient who is only a name on the license; but to you, she is the love of your life. If the two of you had signed up for the next of kin registry, the hospital staff would be able to quickly notify you about your wife's critical condition. You could rush to be by her side, share critical medical history and information that could help save her life; hence, the bill is necessary.

It is not intended to frustrate the mission of hospitals, but rather to facilitate it. It is about notifying the right people at the right time in order to share the right information during an emergency. Using this crucial medical information while caring for a critically ill patient reduces the hospital's own liability. So, such notification is vital.

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Not only is it important to have a family member present to comfort the patient, but also to make informed decisions that the patient can't make for him or herself and to provide the medical history that could very well be the difference between life and death.

So, Mr. Speaker, I hope that my colleagues will join me in supporting H.R. 2560--the Elaine Sullivan Act. It is a small but sensible measure designed to save lives and ease suffering. Mr. Speaker, we don't know when tragedy will strike. But, if it does, we should know that we would not be alone. This bill provides the assurance that our loved ones will be by our side.

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