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Obama Demands Hospital Visitation Rights for Gay Couples

By L.K. Regan

Gay and lesbian couples have long lived in beyond-average fear of hospital stays, because even lifelong partners are often turned away when they attempt to visit. But this fear, which has been a sadly constant aspect of gay couples' experience of disenfranchisement, may be about to end—nationwide. That's because President Obama has asked the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to make a new rule preventing hospitals from denying visitation privileges to gay and lesbian partners.

President Obama's memo to DHHS, released on Thursday, describes "the hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety" of having a loved one in the hospital. At such a time, the memo says, "all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean—a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them. Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides— whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay."

This is a problem for single people or widows/widowers who need the support of a friend, or others who want to choose among those outside their immediate family for support. But, the memo says, "uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives—unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."

Of course, the president cannot ban hospital discrimination outright. But he can ask DHHS to make a regulation that Medicare and Medicaid funding depends on hospitals' letting patients choose the people who can visit them, and on not discriminating against a host of types of visitors, including LGBTs. In addition, the president's memo instructs DHHS to issue regulations insisting that hospitals follow patients' advance directives, which may appoint a same-sex partner to act when the patient is incapacitated.

Last year, a Florida hospital refused visitation to a lesbian woman whose partner lay dying of an aneurysm, even after she presented a durable power of attorney and a living will that both identified her as legal guardian for end-of-life decisions. Soon, that disgusting practice will hopefully be illegal: "It should be made clear," the memo says, "that designated visitors, including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such as durable powers of attorney and health care proxies), should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy."

This is a very big deal for gay families nationwide. "In the absence of gay people being able to legally marry in most jurisdictions," said David Smith, a Human Rights Campaign executive, to CNN, "this is a step to rectify a gross inequity. Because without gay marriage, much more inequities exist. It should be applauded."

Consider it applauded—loudly.