Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hospital Visitation Rights: A step closer to full equality

The seal of the United States Department of He... When I was in my 20's and 30's I never thought much about hospital visitation rights, mainly because I was single for most of that time. There was a time, however, in my mid 20's, when I was in a relationship and we lived on Capital Hill in DC.

One night I was mugged as I walked the ten or so blocks from Union Station to the apartment I shared with my then partner Harold. The event left me with a busted lip, a concussion and an overnight stay at Capital Hill Hospital. All they got was my paycheck, which my employers canceled and reissued.

That brief hospital encounter went amazingly well, given what other gay couples have reported. Harold was able to visit me without any problems and was included in conversations about my care and treatment.

I remember that we had been surprised by the way the hospital staff treated us like just another couple. We had heard so many horror stories from friends whose partners were hospitalized for HIV/AIDS treatment. I had the feeling at the time that the staff and doctor seemed like they just didn't know what to do and rather than make a scene, they just went with it. In the absence of any clear policy, they made a snap decision. Fortunately for us, it was the right one. But that hasn't been the case for the majority of gay and lesbian couples in this situation.

The treatment of same-sex couples by health care providers varies widely from state to state, city to city and hospital to hospital. In many cases, hospital visitation and decision making rights may vary from one hospital employee to another.

All of that changed this week when new federal regulations went into effect that allow patients to designate who will have visitation rights and who will make allowed to make medical decisions for them. President Obama issued the order to the Department of Health and Human Services last year after hearing about two lesbian couples that were denied visitation rights and the ill partners died alone.

The new policy went into effect on Tuesday and applies to every hospital receiving Medicaid and Medicare funding, which is nearly all U.S. hospitals.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force told the Washington Post, "Of all the things same-sex couples have to worry about, of all the discrimination and pressures we face, not being able to see our partner or spouse shouldn't be one of them. This new policy will have a positive impact on same-sex couples and our families throughout the nation."

To be clear, you must be awake and able to make your wishes known to hospital staff. If you are incapacitated or unconscious, that can leave you in a very messy gray area. Legal experts urge all same-sex couples, whether you are married in your home state or not, to have an Advance Medical Directive, a Medical Power of Attorney and a Living Will drawn up by a lawyer that specify, in no uncertain terms, who has the right to make medical decisions for you and who will be allowed to visit you in the hospital if you are unable to make those decisions for yourself.
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