President Obama signed a
memorandum late Thursday ordering the Department of Health and Human
Services to establish new rules that would prevent hospitals from
denying visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians.
The White House also wants to make it
easier for a gay partner to make medical decisions.
The new rules will affect any hospital
that participates in Medicare or Medicaid, which includes the
majority of U.S. hospitals.
“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 said in the memorandum.
Gay men and lesbians are “uniquely affected” because they are
“often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may
have spent decades of their lives,” he added.
Obama said the order, which would allow
a patient to designate a non-familial visitor with decision making
and visiting privileges no more restrictive than those of immediate
family members, could also help a widow or widower with no children
and members of religious orders.
The order also prohibits hospitals from
denying visitation privileges on the basis of a variety of
characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
Gay rights groups welcomed the
“In the absence of gay people being
able to legally marry in most jurisdictions, this is a step to
rectify a gross inequity,” David Smith, an executive at the Human
Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay rights advocate, told
CNN. “Because without gay marriage, much more inequities exist.
It should be applauded.”
Smith said HRC had worked closely with
the Obama administration in tailoring the memorandum's language.
The president's memo also asks the
health secretary to provide additional health care recommendations on
issues that “affect LGBT patients and their families” within the
next 180 days.
“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,”
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, told the New York Times.
“Because all Americans should be able to have loved ones there for
them in their time of need.”