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April, 23, 2010

Obama requires hospitals to allow partner visits

Washington, D.C.--President Barack Obama has directed hospitals receiving Medicare or Medicaid money to allow domestic partners to visit patients.

The president instructed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on April 15 to develop regulations for hospitals that require partner and family-of-choice visits be treated the same as those by spouses and immediate family.

The regulations will be a condition for participation in Medicare and Medicaid.

Obama reportedly made the move after hearing of Lisa Pond, who died alone in Miami after hospital officials refused to allow her partner Janice Langbehn and their three children to visit her in 2007.

A federal judge rejected a lawsuit filed on Langbehn�s behalf, saying that� no law required the hospital to allow a partner to visit.

According to Lambda Legal Defense, Obama called Langbehn from Air Force One shortly after signing the directive.

�There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital,� reads the directive�s preamble.

�In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, 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.�

Obama recognized that people often facing difficulty with visitation issues include widows with no children whose close friends do not qualify as family, and members of religious orders.

�Also 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.�

The new rules will require hospitals to respect the right of patients to designate visitors.

Obama�s directive also says HHS should ensure that hospitals have� policies to respect advance directives, powers of attorney for health care, and other legal documents that patients may have, designating who can make decisions for them if they are incapacitated.

The president wants HHS to report back to him in 180 days with additional recommendations about hospital visitation, medical decision-making and other issues that affect LGBT patients and their families.

Obama�s action is not law, and does not rise to the level of an executive order, but like an executive order, it will cause regulations to be changed. Those regulations are enforceable by the federal government.

The regulations will take effect following their drafting at HHS and the required public comment period for 30 days following publication in the Federal Register.

The regulations could be overturned by a future administration or act of Congress, but neither are likely once they are in effect.

�The president�s directive is a small, but welcome step forward,� said Freedom to Marry executive director Evan Wolfson. �It addresses one of the many ways same-sex couples and their loved ones are made vulnerable and harmed by the denial of marriage and the safety-net of protections marriage brings--in this case, the assurance that a spouse can be by a loved one�s hospital bedside and participate in medical decision-making at a time of great need.�

Wolfson said the action �is particularly noteworthy in its acknowledgment of how same-sex couples are uniquely affected by marriage discrimination and are thus in need of this kind of remedial presidential directive.�

�Of course, the real cure is to end exclusion from marriage,� Wolfson said.

�Piecemeal steps,� Wolfson concluded, �addressing one protection at a time, will take up a lot more time than either the administration or American families can afford.�

Hospital visitation was the only specific promise to the LGBT community Obama made in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination in 2008.

�I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination� the candidate said then.

The president�s action comes a month after criticism that the final version of the health care reform package excluded provisions inserted in the House version by lesbian Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin.

Baldwin�s language could have ended the taxation of employer-provided domestic partner health benefits and increased Medicaid coverage for early HIV treatment.

It could have also given HHS the power to make same-sex couples a family, with all the legal benefits of that definition, for the purpose of health care coverage.

The Senate version, which ultimately passed, excluded Baldwin�s provisions.

Following the election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, neither Senate Democrats nor Obama pushed for them to be included.




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