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Same-sex couples deserve visitation rights, hospitals told

The regulations ordered by President Obama, which also cover advance directives, will apply to all hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid.

By — Posted May 7, 2010

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Same-sex couples and other unmarried partners will have their hospital visitation rights protected by forthcoming federal regulations, according to an April 15 memo from President Obama.

Gay rights groups said the announcement was long overdue. "Many same-sex couples are simply at the mercy of hospital personnel," said Tara Borelli, staff attorney at Lambda Legal, a nonprofit organization supporting the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. "Nobody is hurt by allowing that access."

Obama directed the Dept. of Health and Human Services to issue rules stating that people named in legally valid advance directives and through powers of attorney have the same rights as immediate family members of hospitalized patients when it comes to making health care decisions. Hospitals must also respect patients' rights to designate visitors.

The rules will apply to all hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid, which is about 90% of U.S. hospitals, according to Rebecca Fox, executive director for the National Coalition for LGBT Health.

Obama said denying loved ones' access to each other in hospitals during serious health situations has consequences. Physicians and nurses don't always have the best medical information as a result, and people sometimes die alone while a loved one is "left worrying and pacing down the hall," he wrote.

No reliable estimates exist on how often gays and lesbians are denied access to their hospitalized partners. Dozens of known cases each year could mask many more unreported incidents, Borelli said.

The American Hospital Assn. issued a brief statement saying that "we will look forward to details of the new regulations as well as direction on coordinating with states' laws." The Federation of American Hospitals offered no comment.

Obama said he was moved to act in part by the story of a lesbian couple who was preparing to take a cruise in 2007 with their three children. One of the women, Lisa Pond, collapsed from a brain aneurysm and was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. She died the next day. Janice Langbehn, Pond's partner of nearly 20 years, was denied access to Pond before she died, but Pond's sister was not. Langbehn unsuccessfully sued the hospital.

Jackson Health System in Miami -- which includes the hospital -- has since emphasized same-sex couples' rights during new employee training, said Jason Schneider, MD, immediate past president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Assn. and assistant professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine. However, most states do not legally recognize gay marriages, so some hospital staff don't see same-sex couples as having the same rights as heterosexual married couples, he said.

AMA policy supports hospitals providing the same visitation rights to same-sex couples as they do heterosexual couples.

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