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HHS expands hospital visitation rights for gay couples

Patients may designate visitors during hospital stay

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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.

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National

LGBTQ media ‘excited’ about Press Forward national media funds

Coalition of donors pledges $500 million for local news

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Members of News Is Out, a collaborative of six leading LGBTQ media organizations across the country, have expressed support and excitement about the newly announced national Press Forward effort to support local media in the United States. News Is Out members represent more than 200 years of LGBTQ news and culture coverage, with two member papers starting more than 50 years ago.

“This new effort from foundations, including MacArthur Foundation and Knight Foundation, truly will be a game-changer in the local media space,” said Tracy Baim, co-founder of Windy City Times, which is part of a Chicago collaborative that is also advocating for local funding in that city. “Local media are critical to covering issues across the country, from LGBTQ+ and environmental issues to education and criminal justice reform. Philanthropy can provide an important complement to other needed revenues to help local media survive and thrive.”

In the U.S., 7.1 percent of adults, or 18 million people, identify as LGBTQ, according to Gallup. About 21 percent of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ. The media serving this community has been life-saving, resource sharing and an integral part of the movement for LGBTQ equality, News Is Out members said, adding that this media continues to fill a vital information need.

According to the Press Forward announcement, “A coalition of 22 donors announced Press Forward, a national initiative to strengthen communities and democracy by supporting local news and information with an infusion of more than a half-billion dollars over the next five years.

“Press Forward will enhance local journalism at an unprecedented level to re-center local news as a force for community cohesion; support new models and solutions that are ready to scale; and close longstanding inequities in journalism coverage and practice.”

The Knight Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have been leading the Press Forward effort.

News Is Out is supported in part by a technology grant from the Knight Foundation. The program is called the Queer Media Sustainability Lab

News Is Out is a nearly two-year-old alliance created launched by the Local Media Association, with initial funding from Google News Initiative. The members are Bay Area Reporter, Dallas Voice, Philadelphia Gay News, Washington Blade, Windy City Times and TAGG, a national queer women’s magazine.

News Is Out members have collaborated on editorial, business and fundraising opportunities.

“LGBTQ media have always played a critical role in covering and informing our communities,” said Lynne Brown, publisher of the Washington Blade. “While we have lost dozens of LGBTQ news media outlets in recent years, those of us who have survived are thriving in 2023. We have done so because we have innovated and sought new forms of revenue. The News Is Out Collaborative has assisted with support that propels us forward.”

“LGBTQ+ media is needed now more than ever, as our communities face a backlash across this country,” said Leo Cusimano, publisher of the Dallas Voice. “By working together in News Is Out, we have formed a strong alliance to help our members in technology training, editorial collaborations and much more. New funds into this ecosystem will be vital to strengthening the network of local LGBTQ+ media in this country.”

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Federal Government

Census Bureau asks White House to test questions on sexual orientation, gender identity

Data would be included in annual American Community Survey

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U.S. Census Bureau (Photo credit: GSA)

The U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday asked the Biden administration to sign off on plans to test questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for respondents aged 15 and older on the agency’s annual American Community Survey.

Data on these metrics will help inform civil rights and equal employment enforcement, the Census Bureau said in a notice published on the Federal Register.

Testing will help the agency determine wording, response categories and placement of the questions on the survey — its most comprehensive, covering 3.5 million households each year.

A key unknown will be how answers will be provided by proxies such as parents, spouses or others in a household who isn’t the person about whom the question is asked.

“Younger LGBT people might not yet be out to their parents or others who are answering these questions as a proxy reporter, so the quality of the data might not be as good for younger people,” M. V. Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told PBS News.

Currently, the Census Bureau and its annual American Community Survey only ask questions about same-sex couples who are married or cohabitating.

“We anticipate having much more info about the LGBT people than is currently available — including about the demographic and socioeconomic status of LGBT people who aren’t in same-sex couple households, including occupational status, industry and wages, and about LGBT people who were born outside the U.S. and LGBT people with disabilities, and their families,” Kerith Conron, research director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, told the Associated Press.

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Federal Government

Pentagon to restore honor to veterans kicked out over their sexual orientation

Legislation seeks accountability for DoD

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (screen capture/YouTube/CNN)

The U.S. Department of Defense announced plans to restore honor to service members who were kicked out of the military over their sexual orientation, the agency announced on Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Over the past decade, we’ve tried to make it easier for service members discharged based on their sexual orientation to obtain corrective relief,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said in a statement.

“While this process can be difficult to navigate, we are working to make it more accessible and efficient,” he said, adding, “in the coming weeks, we will be initiating new outreach campaigns to encourage all service members and veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records.”

The move follows a class action lawsuit filed last month by LGBTQ veterans against the Pentagon for allegedly failing to remedy “ongoing discrimination,” including biased language in the discharge papers of LGBTQ veterans.

CBS News has investigated the Pentagon’s handling of service records of veterans who were kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation, revealing the broad scope of discrimination experienced by these LGBTQ veterans — finding, for instance, that more than 29,000 were denied honorable discharges.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), along with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) re-introduced a bill that would establish “a commission to investigate the historic and ongoing impacts of discriminatory military policies on LGBTQ service members and veterans.”

“This commission would study the impact of these bigoted rules” barring LGBTQ troops from serving “and forge a more welcoming future in the military and at the VA,” said Takano, who serves as ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

“Our country has never made amends for official discriminatory policies like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the transgender military ban – and that failure still haunts today’s service members and veterans,” said Jacobs.

“That’s why I’m so proud to co-lead this bicameral legislation that will right these historic wrongs, investigate the past and present impact of anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and help us move forward to build and sustain a diverse, inclusive, strong, and welcoming military.”  

“This commission would be an important step to understand the full scope of the harms caused by policies like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and to ensure a more equitable future for all who serve our country in uniform,” Blumenthal said.

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