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HHS clarifies gay couples have nursing home visitation rights

Guidance was among Sebelius’ goals for improving LGBT health

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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.”

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Kamala Harris addresses LGBTQ community activists at White House roundtable

VP calls herself ‘long-standing ally of the community’

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Vice President Kamala Harris addressed LGBTQ leaders Wednesday at White House roundtable in recognition of Pride Month, declaring “there’s a lot of work to be done” in terms of LGBTQ issues.

“You as community activists, you all have your eyes and ears to the ground,” Harris said in her prepared remarks for the event, which took took place in the Ceremonial Office of the Vice President next to the White House.

Harris, speaking in her prepared remarks that lasted about five minutes, touted the efforts of the Biden administration in advancing LGBTQ rights, including the most recent announcement from the Department of Veterans Affairs it would begin to cover gender reassignment surgery for transgender veterans.

Looking forward, Harris said passage of the Equality Act, legislation that would expand the prohibition of anti-LGBTQ discrimination under federal law, was among the work items to be completed.

“We still don’t have full rights when it comes to employment, housing — things of that nature,” Harris said. “So there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Harris, calling herself a “long-standing ally of the community” also identified her past efforts in support of LGBTQ community, going back her time as San Francisco District Attorney when she created for an LGBTQ hate crimes unit, then as California attorney general pushed the state to become the first to outlaw LGBTQ panic defense in court.

“You are the voices of so many who probably will never walk into this room, and probably over the course of time were not thought to be invited into this room,” Harris concluded.

Harris also talked about ongoing violence against the transgender community as well as the wave of new state legislatures against transgender youth, restricting their access to school sports and transition-related care.

The LGTBTQ leaders in attendance at the event were, per the White House:

  • Imani Woody, Founder, Mary’s House
  • Amiri Nash, DC Youth Poet Laureate
  • Marcelle Afram, Chef and Co-Owner, Shababi Palestinian Rotisserie Chicken
  • D Ojeda, Policy Advocate, National Center for Trans Equality
  • Mia Ives-Roblee, Director of Disability Justice Initiative, Center for American Progress 
  • Anthony Musa, Chair, Pride in Federal Service & Sanctions Licensing Officer, U.S. Department of the Treasury
  • Kevin Jordan Contreas, Community Health Supervisor, Whitman-Walker (Frontline Healthcare Worker)

The Washington Blade attempted to shout out a question after Harris’ remarks on efforts to reach out on the Equality Act, but it was drowned out by other reporters’ inquiries as White House staffers escorted the pool out of the Ceremonial Room.

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White House meeting with LGBTQ leaders renews hope for Equality Act

Despite meeting, legislation all but dead in Senate

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Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

A White House meeting with senior Biden administration officials has left leaders of LGBTQ advocacy groups with renewed hope in their efforts to pass the Equality Act, even though the legislation continues to languish in the U.S. Senate with no plans for an imminent vote.

The meeting with LGBTQ advocates, which took place Monday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, marked the first time in the Biden administration an in-person meeting took place with LGBTQ advocates, who have previously held virtual meetings in the time of coronavirus.

News of the meeting was made public after the White House issued a formal readout of the discussion late Monday. The readout highlighted the Equality Act, legislation that would expand the prohibition on anti-LGBTQ discrimination under federal civil rights law, as a key component of the discussion.

“Advocates shared their perspectives on the urgency and importance of Congress extending long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans by passing the Equality Act and shared the efforts their organizations are undertaking to get the bill to the president’s desk,” the readout says.

LGBTQ participants in the meeting who spoke with the Washington Blade kept their cards close to their vests on the details on the discussion. One participant, for example, said there were different assessments and intelligence on the path forward for the Equality Act, but declined to offer details.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign and one of the participants in the meeting, said in a statement to the Blade it demonstrates “passing the Equality Act is a priority for this administration, and our discussion included ensuring we can work together to identify the votes to move the bill through the Senate and onto President Biden’s desk.”

“The administration has continued to be a proactive partner in advancing LGBTQ protections across the board and an outspoken champion for equality,” David said. “We look forward to more dialogue and progress in partnership with the White House.”

It doesn’t seem the meeting produced anything dramatic in terms of new direction for the Equality Act. One observer close to the meeting said it wasn’t geared toward making major decisions and was more a showing of White House support for the LGBTQ community.

One direct consequence of the meeting, however, is clarification on which senior administration officials are heading up efforts on the Equality Act. The White House identifies three members of the Biden team who participated in the meeting: Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council; Cedric Richmond, director of the Office of Public Engagement; and Jen Klein, executive director of the Gender Policy Council.

The White House didn’t respond to additional inquiries from the Washington Blade following its readout on the meeting, such as who initiated it and the path forward on the Equality Act in the aftermath of the discussion.

Kasey Suffredini, CEO of the LGBTQ group Freedom for All Americans and another meeting participant, conveyed in a statement to the Blade the continued importance of the Equality Act.

“America is ready for the Equality Act, and after the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ attacks in the states this year, it’s clear our LGBTQ friends, family members and neighbors need protections from discrimination now as much as ever,” Suffredini said. “With public reports of bipartisan discussions happening in the Senate, we are grateful to have had the opportunity to discuss with the White House, as we are doing with all critical stakeholders, the ongoing and paramount importance of passing this legislation.”

Sufffedini is “encouraged” by Biden’s support for the Equality Act as well as declarations from senators they’re working with Republicans to get the legislation across the finish line.

Despite the optimism expressed by meeting participants, the Equality Act has been all but dead in the Senate for some time and nowhere near attracting the support of 60 senators, including 10 Republicans, that would be needed to end a filibuster on the legislation. At this time, the Senate Democratic caucus isn’t even united in support of the Equality Act, as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) remains a holdout on the bill.

In the middle of Pride month — an opportune time to express support for the LGBTQ community — no plans are set for a Senate vote. The office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who once promised a floor vote on the Equality Act, didn’t respond to the Blade’s request this week for a new update.

LGBTQ advocacy leaders working on the Equality Act, nonetheless, say there’s a way forward on the legislation, pointing out the support from the public and the business community.

Mara Keising, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and another White House meeting participant, said the Equality Act is gaining momentum.

“With the Equality Act starting to gain traction in the Senate, it’s extremely important right now that all parties continue talking to ensure further progress, and President Biden is a total supporter of the Equality Act and clearly an important player in the process,” Keisling said.

The White House meeting took place days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which was a limited win for the religious-affiliated foster care agency seeking to reject same-sex couples that stopped short of the sweeping First Amendment right to discriminate it was seeking. One participant said the decision came up in passing during the meeting, but wasn’t a major topic of discussion.

The White House readout of the meeting enumerates other LGBTQ topics that came up, stating advocacy leaders briefed officials on anti-transgender legislation in state legislatures and the “detrimental impacts these bills are having on the health, safety, and well-being of children and families across the United States.”

“Senior White House officials expressed their gratitude for the participants’ leadership and impactful advocacy,” the readout says. “They reiterated the President’s strong commitment to achieving full equality for every LGBTQ+ American and his calls for the Senate to quickly pass the Equality Act. Finally, they underscored that the President has the backs of LGBTQ+ Americans, especially transgender youth.”

The meeting on Monday is but one for LGBTQ advocacy leaders at the White House in Pride month. Vice President Kamala Harris was set on Wednesday to hold her own follow-up roundtable with LGBTQ leaders in the White House Ceremonial Office.

Fran Hutchins, another White House meeting participant and executive director of the Equality Federation, said in a statement to the Blade the Equality Act enjoys widespread support.

“Currently, 29 states do not have laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination,” Hutchins said. “Without the Equality Act, LGBTQ Americans remain vulnerable to being evicted from their homes, kicked out of a business that’s open to the public, denied health care, or denied government services in a majority of states simply because of who they are. We need Congress to act now to pass the Equality Act.”

Another organization backing the Equality Act named in the White House readout is the National Women’s Law Center, which didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

Other leaders of LGBTQ advocacy groups who are pushing for the Equality Act aren’t enumerated on the readout of the White House meeting as being present, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ian Thompson, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union, downplayed not being able to be present for the meeting when asked about the ACLU’s omission from the readout.

“Since there are many groups of organizations working on passing the Equality Act, which is good news, we aren’t involved with every meeting,” Thompson said. “We’re continuing to call for passage of the Equality Act and talk to the executive branch — including the White House — about advancing policies that support LGBTQ people and ensure there is no license to discriminate against LGBTQ people.”

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WH responds to Fulton decision after odd team-up in daily briefing

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After an unlikely team-up of reporters in the White House briefing room, the Biden administration responded to the ruling in City of Philadelphia v. Fulton.

A White House spokesperson responded to the the decision last week, which was narrowly decided in favor of a religious-affiliated foster care agency seeking to reject LGBTQ families, via email to the Washington Blade.

“Since day one, the Biden-Harris Administration has been committed to fighting for full equality for LGBTQ+ families, and we intend to make good on that commitment,” the spokesperson said. “It’s possible to comply with the Fulton decision while taking a strong stand against discrimination.”

The email response comes after White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said incorrectly on Monday the administration had already issued a statement on the decision. The question was first posed to her in response to an inquiry from a conservative reporter, then again from the Washington Blade.

A reporter with the religious news service EWTN, in an apparent attempt to make Biden look bad on the issue of religious freedom, asked Psaki for a response to the decision.

“I think we had issued a reaction to it,” Psaki said, even though the White House has made no official statement. “I don’t have anything more to it, but I have to move on.”

The EWTN reporter later interjected in the middle of the briefing a question about the supposed inconsistency of President Biden’s Catholic faith and his support for abortion rights.

The Blade, after being called on by Psaki, pointed out the White House has issued no reaction to Fulton, which could have significant impact on the ability of LGBTQ couples to adopt and foster children. Asked whether Biden was briefed on the ruling, Psaki went back to a non-existent previous statement.

“I thought we had,” Psaki replied. “If not, I will get that to you and this gentlemen over here.”

The Supreme Court, in a rare unanimous decision, issued in Fulton a limited ruling for Catholic Social Services, which sought a First Amendment right to reject same-sex couples in foster care despite having signed a contract with the City of Philadelphia agreeing not to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

But instead of issuing a sweeping decision on the First Amendment, the Supreme Court issued a decision applying only to the context of the contract between Catholic Social Services and the City of Philadelphia. The ruling found the contract doesn’t survive the test of strict scrutiny under the First Amendment because it had exemption language not generally applicable.

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