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Obama memo: hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples
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Obama memo: hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples

by Nick Ardizzone - SGN Staff Writer

Late on April 15, President Obama issued an unexpected memo which commanded hospitals to extend full visitation rights to the same-sex partners of Gay and Lesbian patients. Obama also instructed healthcare facilities to work with individuals in establishing medical power of attorney.

"There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital," Obama's memo began. "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."

"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. 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."

The president's memo directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a regulation which requires all hospitals receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding - the vast majority of hospitals in America - to allow patients to designate who may visit them and prohibit discrimination in visitation based on several factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The memo also instructs the HHS to provide assistance to hospitals in helping them comply with regulations requiring them to respect individuals' healthcare directives and other documents establishing who should make healthcare decisions for patients when they are unable to do so.

The memo closes by requesting HHS to conduct a larger study of the barriers LGBT people and their families face in accessing healthcare.

Last September, a federal district court rejected a Lambda Legal lawsuit filed against Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital on behalf of Janice Langbehn, ruling that no law required the hospital to allow her and their three children to see her partner. Langbehn and the children were kept apart from Lisa Pond, Langbehn's partner, by hospital staff for eight hours as Pond slipped into a coma and later died.

After signing the memo, Obama called Langbehn and expressed his sympathies for the tragic loss of her partner.

"It was very rewarding to hear 'I'm sorry,' from the president, because that's what I have wanted to hear from Jackson Memorial since the night Lisa died," said Janice Langbehn in a statement issued by Lambda Legal. "I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through."

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