The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Wednesday announced new guidance to support enforcement of a memo signed last April by President Barack Obama that bans hospitals from discriminating against gay men and lesbians.

Obama's order prohibits hospitals that accept federal funding from Medicare and Medicaid, the government's elderly and poor health care programs, from discriminating on the basis of a variety of characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity. It also prevents hospitals from denying visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians, and requires officials to honor patients' wishes of who can make medical decisions on their behalf.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency under the direction of the department of Health and Human Services (HHS), finalized the rules in November.

“Couples take a vow to be with each other in sickness and in health and it is unacceptable that, in the past, some same-sex partners were denied the right to visit their loved ones in times of need,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We are releasing guidance for enforcing new rules that give all patients, including those with same-sex partners, the right to choose who can visit them in the hospital as well as enhancing existing guidance regarding the right to choose who will help make medical decisions on their behalf.”

Hospital inspectors will now be required to evaluate hospitals on whether they are in compliance with the equal visitation and representation rights requirements.

“This announcement is another step toward equal rights for all Americans, and it is another step toward putting the patient at the center of our health care system,” said CMS Administrator Donald M. Berwick, M.D. “All patients should be afforded the same rights and privileges when they enter our health care system, and that includes the same opportunities to see their significant other.”

Gay rights groups have called the new rules a small but significant contribution towards equality in the absence of the legal right to marry in most jurisdictions.