September 7, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
HHS expands hospital visitation rights for gay couples

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Department of Health & Human Services on Wednesday unveiled a new policy to enhance hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid sent a letter on Wednesday to states building off the memorandum President Obama issued last year mandating that hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funds allow patients to designate their own visitors during a hospital stay, including a same-sex partner.

In November, HHS issued the final rule implementing Obama’s proposed change. The letter sent to states on Wednesday provides the enforcement mechanism by which state survey and certification groups can ensure hospitals are abiding by the policy.

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Jesse Moore, an HHS spokesperson, said his department generally works with hospitals to bring them into compliance with rules and, at this point, HHS hasn’t heard of any problems with the guidance related to same-sex couples.

However, Moore said if a hospital doesn’t comply with the new rule and fails to fix the problem, HHS has “the power to terminate a Medicare provider agreement.”

The guidance that will be given to state survey agencies marks the last step in implementing the change that Obama proposed on hospital visitation last year.

Additionally, the letter also issues guidance mandating that hospitals recognize advance directives designating a same-sex partner as someone who can make emergency medical decisions for a patient who’s incapacitated. The department clarifies hospitals should defer to patients’ wishes concerning their representatives — whether expressed in writing, verbally or through other evidence — unless prohibited by state law.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius emphasized the importance of the policy change to LGBT couples in a statement.

“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,” Sebelius said. “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.”

The new guidance updates the conditions of participation for hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid, which are the health and safety standards that these hospitals must meet. The change applies to all patients of these hospitals — even if the patient isn’t on Medicare or Medicaid.

Don Berwick, the CMS administrator, said the updated guidance to states is beneficial for same-sex couples and enhances the quality of health care throughout the country.

“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,” Berwick said. “All patients should be afforded the same rights and privileges when they enter our health care system, and that includes the same opportunity to see their significant other.”

LGBT rights groups were quick to praise the updated policy as a means to ensure LGBT Americans are treated fairly during hospital stays.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, commended HHS for issuing the updated policy in a statement as she said more work is necessary.

“Ensuring that the medical wishes of [LGBT] people are respected is an example of the federal government recognizing the life of LGBT families,” Carey said. “An emergency situation in a hospital is the last place where anyone should feel unsafe. While a positive step forward, it is critical we continue to work at all levels of government to make sure our families are fully recognized and treated fairly.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, also said the guidance is beneficial to LGBT people seeking hospital treatment.

“This is a great step to help ensure enforcement of a common sense policy,” Cole-Schwartz said. “No one should be denied the ability to visit their loved ones in the hospital and this next step ensures that principle will be carried out.”

In addition to sending out this letter, the Health Resources & Services Administration, an agency within HHS, is set to announce a $248,000 grant to help create a national training and technical assistance center aimed at helping community health centers improve the health of LGBT populations. The grant was awarded to Fenway Health, a Boston-based center that works to provide the LGBT community access to health care, education, research and advocacy.

NOTE: This article has been updated.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article, quoting HHS spokesperson Jesse Moore, incorrectly stated HHS could revoke accreditation for hospitals that fail to comply with the change.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

4 Comments
  • The key take-away here is that every adult should have a medical power of attorney and a “living will” to indicate who gets to make medical decisions on one’s behalf when one is unable, including the right to inspect one’s person and one’s medical records. Even with these regulations, situations will continue to appear where an unmarried partner is denied access to the beloved who is admitted on an emergency basis and unable to make such designations to hospital staff.

  • Does this new policy really do anything? Exactly how many LGBT patients have to die alone before a hospital loses its Medicare provider agreement?

  • This special program was launched in 2010 and was originally expected to run out of money before it could cover everyone who needed it. But the opposite happened. People with pre-existing conditions either didn’t know about this plan or didn’t care to take part. Less than 20,000 people have signed up across the country. learn at “Penny Health” for your self

  • What State Laws are there that might prevail over the wishes of a Patient?:

    “The department clarifies hospitals should defer to patients’ wishes concerning their representatives — whether expressed in writing, verbally or through other evidence — unless prohibited by state law.”

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