President Obama on last Thursday ordered his health secretary to issue new rules aimed at granting hospital visiting rights to same-sex partners.
The White House announced the rule changes, which will also make it easier for gay men and lesbians to make medical decisions on behalf of their partners, in a memorandum released Thursday night. In it, the president said the new rules would affect any hospital that participates in Medicare or Medicaid, the government programs to cover the elderly and the poor.
“Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindness and caring of a loved one at their sides,” Mr. Obama said in the memorandum, adding that the rules could also help widows and widowers who rely on friends and members of religious orders who care for one another. But he says gay men and lesbians are “uniquely affected” because they are often barred from visiting partners with whom they have spent decades.
Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay rights issues, said that while the memorandum on its own did not grant any new rights, it did “draw attention to the very real and tragic situations many gays and lesbians face when a partner is hospitalized.”
Ordering the Department of Health and Human Services to find a better way to handle such situations, Mr. Socarides said, is “the kind of thing the gay community was hoping Obama would do right after he was inaugurated.”
Several states have tried to put an end to discrimination against same-sex couples, and Mr. Obama said he intended to build on those efforts. He said the new rules would make clear that designated visitors should enjoy visiting privileges that are no more restrictive than those enjoyed by immediate family members.
The rules will take time to draft and put in place, and so Mr. Obama’s order will have no immediate effect. Even so, gay rights groups called it a major advance for the families of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals.
“It’s a huge deal,” said David Smith, vice president of policy for the Human Rights Campaign, which worked with the White House to develop the memorandum, in an interview Thursday night. “Nearly every hospital in the country will now be required to provide hospital visitation rights to LGBT families. It’s an enormous step. In the absence of equal marriage rights in most jurisdictions, this step provides an essential right to LGBT families for a gay person or a lesbian person to spend time with their partner in a critical situation.”
In some instances in the past, hospitals have barred bedside visits by the person who held the medical power of attorney for a patient.
Gay rights advocates said the rules change was inspired by one of those cases involving a same-sex couple, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond, who were profiled in The New York Times last year. After Ms. Pond was stricken with a fatal brain aneurysm, Ms. Langbehn was denied visiting rights in 2007 by a Florida hospital. Although Ms. Langbehn had power of attorney and she and Ms. Pond were parents to four children they had adopted, the hospital refused for eight hours to allow her and the children to see Ms. Pond, her partner for 18 years. Ms. Pond died as Ms. Langbehn tried in vain to get to her side.
Ms. Langbehn, represented by Lambda Legal, a legal advocacy organization, brought suit against the hospital, Jackson Memorial in Miami, but lost. On Thursday night, Mr. Obama called her from Air Force One to say that he had been moved by her case.
“I was so humbled that he would know Lisa’s name and know our story,” Ms. Langbehn said in a telephone interview. “He apologized for how we were treated. For the last three years, that’s what I’ve been asking the hospital to do. Even now, three years later, they still refuse to apologize to the children and I for the fact that Lisa died alone.”
Mr. Obama campaigned saying he would fight for the rights of gay men and lesbians, but he has been under pressure since the beginning of his presidency to be a stronger advocate for their issues.
Many gay men and lesbians grew disenchanted with what they viewed as his foot-dragging on reversing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that bars them from serving openly in the military. The president said in his State of the Union address this year that he intended to move to overturn the policy, and his administration has been taking steps to do so.
The memorandum is intended to “help ensure that patients will be able to face difficult times in hospitals with compassion, dignity and respect,” a White House spokesman, Shin Inouye, said Thursday night. “By taking these steps, we can better protect the interests and needs of patients that are gay or lesbian, widows and widowers with no children, members of religious orders, or others for whom their loved ones are not always immediate relatives. Because all Americans should be able to have loved ones there for them in their time of need.”