Task Force applauds HHS announcement of far-reaching policy protecting same-sex couples in hospital settings

The Obama administration today took a significant step forward in ensuring same-sex couples are no longer discriminated against in hospital settings. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced its final rule on ending such discrimination in hospital visitation policies across the country.

The new rule, which takes effect in 60 days, directs any hospital receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to have written visitation policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition, the hospitals must inform each patient of his or her right to receive visitors designated by the patient, “including, but not limited to, a spouse, a domestic partner (including a same-sex domestic partner), another family member or a friend.” The new rule will cover nearly 6,200 hospitals with more than 35 million patient admissions each year.

 “Of all the things same-sex couples have to worry about, of all the discrimination and pressures we face, not being able to see our partner or spouse shouldn’t be one of them. Today’s announcement honors our relationships, our love and our basic humanity. An end to this discrimination can’t come soon enough. We thank the administration for taking this critical stride forward and will continue to work with Health and Human Services as it issues future guidelines to ensure full and clear implementation of this rule,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The new policy will help put an end to heart-wrenching stories like that of Charlene Strong, who lost her partner of 10 years, Kate Fleming, in 2006. When Fleming was rushed to the hospital unconscious, Strong was prohibited by hospital staff from being by her side because Washington state did not recognize their relationship. Facing discrimination, Strong was blocked from seeing Fleming until she gained permission from Fleming’s family to verify the couple’s relationship. Their story is detailed in a documentary called “For My Wife…” and helped influence the establishment of this policy.

 “The Obama administration today took an important step in addressing an injustice that has caused profound pain, stress and heartbreak for same-sex couples and our families. Thankfully, I was able to tell Kate I deeply loved her after being allowed access. I was able to hold her after she died and be with her. I will never forget that night, and if it has done one thing for me, it has clearly inspired me to see that all of our families have the protections and assurances necessary to ensure we have that moment of dignity and grace to be by our loved one’s side. That night is also an ongoing reminder of how we will continue to be vulnerable in moments of crisis unless there are explicit protections for same-sex couples who don’t have legal documentation identifying their relationship. Until that time, we must continue this conversation nationwide to allow all families the protection of recognition and the elimination of obstacles that our families are currently asked to navigate,” said Charlene Strong.