June 28, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
HHS clarifies gay couples have nursing home visitation rights
Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius speaks before the AIDS 2012 International Conference

Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius had sought to expand the hospital visitation rights memo to include nursing homes. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Gay people living in nursing homes will have the same guaranteed access to their partners and spouses as gay patients in hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid, according to new guidance obtained Friday by the Washington Blade.

In guidance dated June 28 to state survey agency directors, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid clarifies that President Obama’s 2010 memorandum guaranteeing that patients can have a same-sex partner visit them in the hospital also means residents in long-term care facilities, or nursing homes, must “be given full and equal visitation privileges.”

“Residents must be notified of their rights to have visitors on a 24-hour basis, who could include, but are not limited to, spouses (including same-sex spouses), domestic partners (including same-sex domestic partners), other family members, or friends,” the guidance states.

The guidance, signed by CMS Director of Survey & Certification Thomas Hamilton, says the guidance takes effect immediately and should be communicated within 30 days to all survey and certification staff, their managers and state or regional office training coordinators.

Clarifying that the hospital visitation rights memo for gay couples also applies to nursing homes was among the goals that Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius identified in her 2012 report on objectives to improve LGBT health.

Brian Cook, a CMS spokesperson, said the new guidance will help ensure that gay residents living in nursing homes will have access to their partners or spouses while in long-term care.

“Today, as the Department of Health & Human Services celebrates Pride Month, we have clarified regulations for federally regulated nursing facilities, to protect visitation rights for residents in same-sex relationships,” Cook said. “This new guidance furthers the administration’s commitment to equality for same-sex couples and will help to guarantee that spouses or domestic partners of nursing home residents have every opportunity to be with their loved ones.”

In April 2010, President Obama issued a memorandum mandating that hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funds — or most facilities — permit patients to allow their same-sex partners and spouses to visit them. The guidance issued on Friday clarifies that memorandum also applies to nursing homes, which also receives funds from Medicare and Medicaid.

An estimated 1.5 million people are currently living in nursing homes. Given that the William Institute estimates 3.5 percent of the adult population identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual, those numbers would indicate 52,500 LGB people live in nursing homes and would be covered under the new guidance.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, praised HHS for clarifying these protections for gay people living in nursing homes.

“As we’ve urged HHS, we’re grateful they have made clear that the visitation rights of individuals in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, include the ability to receive visits from same-sex spouses and partners,” Cole-Schwartz said. “Too many older members of the LGBT community are forced back into the closet when they enter nursing facilities. Today’s guidance will help ensure that they and their families are respected.”

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

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