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WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Obama on the evening of April 15 called on the Department of Health and Human Services to order all hospitals that participate in Medicaid and Medicare to allow patients to designate who shall be allowed to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf. The order would allow for same-sex partners to have the same rights as immediate family members.
The president’s Thursday night memo to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius made note of the many couples who were unable to see their partners in their last hours of life, as well as carry out their partner’s wishes.
“There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital,” the White House memo read. “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.”
The president said that gay and lesbian Americans are “uniquely affected” by being “unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.”
The move was celebrated by LGBT community leaders as a small but important step forward.
“President Obama has acknowledged that nobody should have to suffer through the pain and anxiety of not being able to be with their loved ones in their time of need,” said James Esseks, director of the ACLU LGBT Project. “We welcome this bold step in achieving dignity for all Americans.”
“This order hopefully signals the end of unnecessary pain for gay people by granting same-sex couples respect and fairness during life’s most dire moments,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “We hope that HHS will implement this order as soon as possible.”
The order requires that hospitals that participate in Medicaid and Medicare not deny visitation rights based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. HHS is requested to provide the president with recommendations on addressing hospital visitation, medical decision-making and other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families within 180 days.
“The administration’s step today, though small, will mean a lot to many people in harm’s way,” said Freedom to Marry director Evan Wolfson in a statement. “The President’s memo 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, pass the federal Respective for Marriage Act, and provide all families the full measure of protections,” Wolfson added. “Piecemeal steps, addressing one protection at a time, will take up a lot more time than either the administration or American families can afford.”
Lambda Legal released a statement Thursday night indicating that President Obama, after signing the memo, called Lambda client Janice Langbehn directly to express his sympathies for the loss of her partner, Lisa Pond, and the treatment she went through.
Last September, a federal district court rejected Lambda Legal’s lawsuit filed against Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami 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 Pond by hospital staff for eight hours as Pond slipped into a coma and later died after suffering a stroke while on a cruise.
“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 Langbehn. “I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through.”