Fairview Southdale Hospital bans visitors for patient, investigation pending

On the second floor of Fairview Southdale Hospital, just above the emergency room, is where you will find 71-year-old Michael Puff.

He’s been at Fairview Hospital for eight months, after suffering two strokes. Before that he spent 10 months at Methodist Hospital.  He is a patient with complex medical needs and is unable to feed and bathe himself.

On January 10, his family received a three-sentence letter from M Health Fairview, informing them Michael had been discharged five days earlier, on January 5, and they would no longer be allowed to visit him unless they were taking him from the hospital.

"Security will be notified to assist with removing any visitors who are here for any reason other than assisting Michael out of the premises," the letter said.  It was signed by the nursing director, Joe Knowles.

"I visit him every day and will spend five to six hours being his care assistant in the evening and weekends and try to help him," said the brother, Dr. Art Puff, who is an emergency room-trained physician with another health group.

Dr. Puff said he doesn’t know the hospital’s motivation, but the family wonders if the visitor ban is intended to force them to take Michael home, even though he requires 24-7 nursing care that they can’t provide and haven’t been able to find.

"When my brother calls me, he begs me, I’ll do anything you want, just come see me," said Dr. Art Puff.

A Right to Visitors

Dave Feinwachs, former general counsel for the Minnesota Hospital Association for 30 years, said health care facilities are not allowed to ban visitors "except in some very limited circumstances."

Hospitals can trespass visitors who are truly disruptive, violent, or threatening people, he said. Health care facilities can also restrict visitors because of infectious diseases, like COVID.

"What they can’t do is ban visitors who are overly concerned or critical of the care their loved ones are receiving," said Feinwachs.

Feinwachs said he had never heard of a visitor ban applying to a patient, instead of trespassing individual visitors.

Minnesota’s Patients’ Bill of Rights provides for a right to visits and to be free from isolation except in an emergency.

A 1981 Minnesota Supreme Court case, State v. Hoyt, upheld a skilled nursing patient’s right to have visitors, even if they are frequent, a non-family member, and are critical of the care the patient is receiving.

In 2010, President Obama signed an executive order that said patients who receive Medicare and Medicaid have a right to receive visitors.

On-Site Federal Investigation

Michael Puff’s family filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) last week, which referred the case to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). 

In a letter, MDH said the situation described by the Puff family meets CMS guidelines for an on-site federal investigation.

The Puff family signed a waiver allowing M Health Fairview to talk about Michael Puff’s case.

An Fairview Health Services spokesperson, Aimee Jordan, said Monday the hospital has been providing care for Michael Puff for 225 days without any reimbursement.  

In a phone conversation Friday, Jordan and Fairview Health Services Vice President of Communications, Joe Campbell, said the Puff family has a history of disruptive behavior at the hospital, allegations the family denies.  

Jordan said the family took Michael outside the hospital without a jacket, gave him medication without approval, brought cooking appliances into his room, and made hostile and racist comments to hospital staff.

The PR executives were unaware of the pending CMS on-site investigation and that, as FOX 9’s Tom Lyden told them, "You can ban a visitor who is disruptive, you cannot ban patients from having visitors."

Campbell replied, "This is not a conversation I was prepared to have."

Within an hour of FOX 9’s phone call with M Health Fairview, the Puff family received a second letter from M Health Fairview. 

"Mr. Puff is welcome to receive visitors who do not demonstrate disruptive, aggressive, or disrespectful behavior," their letter now said.

The letter then goes on specifically ban two family members, Michael’s brother Art, and his sister. 

The letter said they interfered with his care and medication, were verbally abusive to staff and made racially motivated remarks.

"My sister and are like sacrificial lambs, they had to do something they had to save face," said Dr. Art Puff. 

Dr. Puff said he once gave his brother a breath mint, which the hospital insisted was pain medication.  He also admits he brought a toaster to his brother’s hospital room to make waffles, and he took his brother outside for a breath of fresh air.

He said the family has never received any documentation of these incidents.

"They are picking on the two people who are the most vocal advocates," said Dr. Puff. "We are vocal but respectful."

Feinwachs, the former legal counsel for the hospital association, is also skeptical of the hospital’s reasoning.

"If this was true, why would the hospital want a high needs, developmentally disabled stroke patient, discharged to the care of these people the hospital says are awful," said Feinwachs.

"That doesn’t add up either," he said.