The president of the Takoma Park, Md., based Washington Adventist Hospital has apologized for what she says was a “miscommunication” that led to a delay by the hospital in allowing a woman to visit her same-sex partner following the partner’s admission to the emergency room.
But hospital president Joyce Newmyer disputes claims by the two women and the Human Rights Campaign that an initial denial of a request to visit the partner was due to discrimination. Instead, she says it was based entirely on a policy of barring anyone from visiting emergency room patients undergoing initial treatment and evaluation.
Newmeyer’s assessment of the matter is at odds with an account by Takoma Park residents Kathryn Wilderotter and Linda Cole, who have been partners for eleven years and were legally married in Canada in 2004.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT advocacy group, released a statement saying a hospital staff member declined to allow Cole to visit Wilderotter shortly after Wilderotter was taken by ambulance on Nov.13, 2011 to the hospital’s emergency room because Cole “was reportedly not recognized as a family member.”
Wilderotter told the Blade she suffered a seizure while driving her car, resulting in a crash that led to an injury. She said a female staff member sitting at the front desk at the emergency room entrance declined to allow Cole to visit Wilderotter after Cole told the woman she was Wilderotter’s partner and spouse.
According to Wilderotter, Cole called Wilderotter’s sister, Kristin Biggs, who arrived at the hospital about 20 minutes later. When Biggs approached the same emergency room staff member she introduced herself as Wilderotter’s sister, Wilderotter told the Blade.
The female staff member then replied, “Oh, we have family here now. You can go in,” Wilderotter quoted her partner as informing her.
HRC announced in its Jan. 19 statement that Cole and Wilderotter have filed separate complaints of discrimination over the incident with a joint federal commission that regulates hospitals and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Discrimination during a medical emergency may be one of the worst forms of discrimination LGBT people face,” said HRC President Joe Solmonese. “Recognizing this problem, federal regulations were put in place to end discrimination in healthcare settings and allow all people to be with their loved ones during their most critical moments.”
Solmonese was referring to the implementation in January 2011 of new federal regulations initiated by the Obama administration that require all hospitals participating in Medicaid and Medicare programs to allow patients to designate the persons they wish to see as visitors. The regulations prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation based on sexual orientation and gender identity among other categories.
Since nearly every U.S. hospital participates in Medicaid or Medicare programs the new regulations are said to apply to nearly all hospitals in the country, including Washington Adventist Hospital.
Meanwhile, HRC said in its statement that Washington Adventist Hospital has not responded to its annual survey of healthcare providers, which it uses to publish the HRC Healthcare Equality Index. The index assesses and discloses the policies and practices of hospitals related to LGBT patients and their families.
Newmyer told the Blade on Monday that she didn’t know why the hospital hasn’t returned the HRC survey in past years but said hospital officials were currently working on it and would be sending it to HRC shortly.
In a phone interview with the Blade on Monday, Wilderotter said a hospital executive called the couple six weeks later to say the incident was caused by a new employee unfamiliar with hospital policies and that the hospital apologized for what happened.
Newmyer posted a statement on the hospital website on Jan. 20 saying she was troubled over news media stories reporting the initial denial of visitation was due to discrimination.
“First, I want to express my deepest apologies to Ms. Wilderotter and Ms. Cole for feeling anything less than valued at our hospital,” she said in the statement. “As a policy and a practice, our hospital does not discriminate against anyone regardless of their race, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation or ability to pay,” she said.
Newmyer told the Blade on Monday that a hospital investigation into the incident shows that a “perfect storm” of miscommunication and coincidence may have led Cole and Wilderotter to believe they were singled out for discrimination.
According to Newmyer, when Cole arrived at the hospital doctors and emergency room attendants were treating Wilderotter and evaluating her condition. She said the hospital has a policy that prohibits anyone from visiting an emergency room patient at this “critical” stage of treatment.
She could not determine exactly what the hospital staff person told Cole at this time, Newmyer said, but she is certain that the denial of the visit would have been issued to anyone arriving at that time. In what she called an unfortunate coincidence, Newmyer said the attending doctors and staff completed their initial evaluation of Wilderotter and cleared her to receive visitors just as Wilderotter’s sister arrived.
When the sister was allowed to enter the emergency room treatment area, Cole understandably could have concluded that her initial denial was due to discrimination rather than the across-the-board policy of delaying visitation during the early stage of treatment, Newmyer said.
Wilderotter said the emergency room staff member’s comment referring to her sister as “family” and saying the sister could enter the area where she was being treated suggests that the staff member believed the sister rather than Cole should be allowed to enter the treatment area for a visit. Wilderotter said she has also heard from friends and others familiar with Washington Adventist Hospital that family members are sometime allowed in to visit a loved one in the emergency room even during the early stage of treatment by doctors and nurses.
“My sister took Linda by the hand and led her in,” said Wilderotter, who noted that she was comforted to see the two of them arrive at her side. Wilderotter said the staff member at the emergency room entrance didn’t attempt to stop Cole from entering the treatment area with her sister.
Catherine Holroyd, a Hyattsville, Md., resident contacted the Blade on Monday to report that she and her lesbian partner have been treated with respect and were fully recognized as a same-sex couple when the two have been admitted to Washington Adventist Hospital on separate occasions as patients.
“I’m a retired nurse,” Holroyd said. “I can tell you that we’ve been treated well at that hospital and so have other gay couples.”
HRC spokesperson Paul Gueguierre said Cole and Widerotter’s discrimination complaint has merit.
“Linda Cole was denied access to her partner during a time of great need,” he said. “Regardless of whether it was a simple communications problem, this was unfortunately a case of healthcare discrimination,” he said.
“We are encouraged by recent statements by hospital administrators that they do not discriminate and will take steps to prevent this from happening again in the future,” Guequierre said. ”We look forward to their participation in the Healthcare Equality Index. The HEI is designed to prevent cases like this one.”