Obama orders new rules on hospital visitation for LGBT patients and families

Last June, when NBC News anchor Brian Williams asked the President about marriage equality, Obama gave an answer instead about hospital visitation:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Do gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry in this country have a friend in the White House?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think gays and lesbians, uh, have a friend in the White House (pause) because I’ve consistently committed myself to civil unions, making sure that they have the ability to visit each other in hospitals, uh, that they are able to access benefits, uh, that they are, uh, have a whole host of legal rights that they currently, uh, do not have. Uh, I don’t think that, uh, it makes sense for, uh, the federal government to get in the business of determining what marriage is, uh, that isn’t, uh, traditionally the federal government’s role.

Weak answer. And, some of us are still wondering if we have a friend in the White House. Obviously, making sure gays and lesbians have “the ability to visit each other in hospitals” became a key issue for the President. At least he’s starting to deliver on that one. It’s nice. But, frankly, I’d prefer he work on repealing DOMA and finally get around to supporting marriage equality.

Today, the White House press office sent out, via email, a Presidential Memorandum on “Hospital Visitation.” The subject of the memo is “Respecting the Rights of Hospital Patients to Receive Visitors and to Designate Surrogate Decision Makers for Medical Emergencies.” It was sent from the President to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

LGBT Americans are intended to be beneficiaries of this memo. The full memo is posted here. Here’s an excerpt:

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 rolonged hospital stay. Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. Members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf. 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.

Here are some of the passages in the memo relating to gay people:

You should also provide that participating hospitals may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The rulemaking should take into account the need for hospitals to restrict visitation in medically appropriate circumstances as well as the clinical decisions that medical professionals make about a patient’s care or treatment.

And:

Provide additional recommendations to me, within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, on actions the Department of Health and Human Services can take to address hospital visitation, medical decisionmaking, or other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families.

But, don’t get too excited:

This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

So, no progress on DOMA. No pressure on DADT. But, we’re getting something.

I had surgery for appendicitis last year at George Washington University Hospital. I was lucky because no one ever questioned or challenged the presence of my partner, Carlos. It was never an issue. But, this policy can have real world implications for many families. Just this week, Jackson Memorial Hospital changed its policy after a horrible incident involving a lesbian couple, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond:

The family vacation cruise that Janice Langbehn, her partner Lisa Marie Pond and three of their four children set out to take in February 2007 was designed to be a celebration of the lesbian couple’s 18 years together.

But when Pond suffered a massive stroke onboard before the ship left port and was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, administrators refused to let Langbehn into the Pond’s hospital room. A social worker told them they were in an “anti-gay city and state.”

These anti-gay cities and states really have to be forced to change. In too many places, only federal action will do that. We still need to repeal DOMA. And, we need federal partnership recognition.


On October 27, 2010, Joe was one of five bloggers who interviewed President Obama. Joe is a DC-based political consultant with over twenty-five years of experience at both the state and federal level. Joe has managed political operations and legislative efforts for both candidates and issues-based organizations. For seven years, he was the Director of State Legislation at Handgun Control, Inc. He served as that organization's first Political Director during the 2000 cycle. Joe is a graduate of the University of Maine School of Law. In addition, he has a Masters in Public Administration from Lehigh University and received his B.A. from the University of New Hampshire. Joe also has a fun dog, Petey, a worthy successor to Boomer, who got Joe through eight years of Bush and Cheney. Joe likes to think he is a world class athlete having finished the 2005 Chicago Marathon in the time of 4:10. He has completed six other marathons as well -- and is still determined to break the four hour mark.

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