KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Obama Extends Hospital Visitation Rights, Medical Decisions, To Gays And Other Non-Family Members

The Washington Post: "President Obama mandated Thursday that nearly all hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and respect patients' choices about who may make critical health-care decisions for them. ... The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo that was e-mailed to reporters ... while he was at a fundraiser in Miami." Obama's order will begin the HHS rule-making process, which could take months, but will "affect any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding."

"Hospitals often bar visitors who are not related to an incapacitated patient by blood or marriage, and gay rights activists say many do not respect same-sex couples' efforts to designate a partner to make medical decisions for them if they are seriously ill or injured" (Shear, 4/16).

The New York Times: "'Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindness and caring of a loved one at their sides,' Mr. Obama said in the memorandum, adding that the rules could also help widows and widowers who rely on friends and members of religious orders who care for one another. ... The rules will take time to draft and put in place, and so Mr. Obama's order will have no immediate effect. Even so, gay rights groups called it a major advance for the families of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals" (Stolberg, 4/15).

NPR: "But this isn't the first time a president has used Medicare funding to expand access to hospitals. When President Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, many hospitals were racially segregated. That new law said hospitals that received federal Medicare dollars would have to integrate. Initially there was strong resistance, but within a year of Medicare's beginning, the desegregation of the nation's hospitals was essentially complete" (Shapiro, 4/16).

The Los Angeles Times: "In recent months, some leaders in the gay community have grown tired of waiting for the Democratic president to act on their issues since he took office more than a year ago. ... Although it is not one of the more controversial items on gay activists' agenda, the visitation issue could still inspire a political fight. One conservative thinker said late Thursday that the memo undermines the definition of marriage and represents government intrusion into healthcare."

The president's directive is "inspired in part by the case of Janice Langbehn, who was kept from seeing her partner, Lisa Pond, as she slipped into a coma." A federal judge rejected the lawsuit against Florida's Jackson Memorial Hospital, "saying there was no law requiring the staff to grant Langbehn access to Pond's bedside" (Parsons and Hennessey, 4/16).

CNN: "Obama's memo also requires the HHS regulations to guarantee hospitals honor all patients' advance directives, which include stipulations such as who should make health care decisions if the patient isn't able to do so. The memo also directs the department to look into any other health care barriers that pose challenges to such families and make recommendations to the president on them within 180 days. He pointed out that North Carolina recently amended its Patients' Bill of Rights to give each patient 'the right to designate visitors who shall receive the same visitation privileges as the patient's immediate family members, regardless of whether the visitors are legally related to the patient.' Delaware, Nebraska and Minnesota have adopted similar laws, the memo said" (4/16).

The Wall Street Journal: "It is common practice for hospitals to deny visitation to non-family members. Gay rights activists have cited these restrictions as cause for why they need the right to marry" (Meckler, 4/16).

Reuters: The memo "said hospitals could not deny visitation privileges on the basis of sexual origin, race, religion or gender identity" (Charles, 4/16). This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.