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GAY AND GRAY: Obama Orders Hospital Visitation Rights For "Unrelated" Partners

Posted Apr 27 2010 2:35am

JanAdams75x75 Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams ( bio ) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here , and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here .]

category_bug_gayandgray.gif Lots of people in the gay community find President Obama a frustrating figure. Most of us voted for him in 2008 (or at least his percentages of the vote in heavily gay urban enclaves topped 80 percent.) Yet, as in most other controversial areas, he sometime seems to talk a better game about supporting our rights than he delivers.

For example, he promised in this year's State of the Union speech that his administration would move to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy under which gay service people can be interrogated about their orientation and discharged if they won't lie.

Seventy-five percent of citizens think this law should go. But nothing much has happened and military gays are still being kicked out.

Democratic leaders are now saying this issue will have to wait until next year. Just today, several gay veterans chained themselves to the fence outside the White House to protest the DADT policy and administration inaction on its pledge.

With this background, it was extremely heartening to see the president move on an issue that is probably one of the most important to aging gays. On April 15, he ordered that nearly all hospitals must extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and respect patients' choices about who may make critical health-care decisions for them.

According to the Washington Post, this was "perhaps the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans."

The Secretary of Health and Human Services has been ordered to write regulations to enforce this policy at any hospital that gets federal money (most all hospitals get some federal money.)

The new rules will not apply only to gays. They also will affect widows and widowers who have been unable to receive visits from a friend or companion. And they would allow members of some religious orders to designate someone other than a family member to make medical decisions.

This new policy really matters. Gay and lesbian people, especially older ones, often have formed alternative family networks not based on blood relationships. And, although gay couples can make legal arrangements in some states that create some recognition for their relationships, they never know if in a crisis a strange hospital or bureaucracy will honor their connections. (For many of us, this is why we want access to legal marriage in the vast majority of locales where this is not currently possible.)

Lately a rash of horror stories have come out about couples being separated when one got sick. We think these things don't happen anymore, but they do.

ITEM: Lisa Pond collapsed on a cruise ship and was taken to the ER in Florida. Her partner and their three adopted kids followed the ambulance. They were denied access to see Lisa for hours in spite of the fact that all the appropriate medical and legal forms were faxed to the hospital within 30 minutes. Lisa Pond died alone. President Obama was said to be moved by this case.

ITEM: Sharon Reed says she was denied access to her dying partner of 17 years, Jo Ann Ritchie, in Washington state in 2005. A "temporary night nurse" screamed at her, "you don't belong here," despite Reed and Ritchie having been previously recognized as a couple by the hospital and having the proper legal papers. The Pond and Ritchie cases were both widely reported including in The New York Times .

ITEM: Here in California, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights a legal outfit that has filed a lawsuit for these men:

"Clay and Harold made diligent efforts to protect their legal rights, and had their legal paperwork in place--wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives, all naming each other. Harold was 88 years old and in frail medical condition, but still living at home with Clay, 77, who was in good health.

"One evening, Harold fell down the front steps of their home and was taken to the hospital. Based on their medical directives alone, Clay should have been consulted in Harold’s care from the first moment. Tragically, county and health care workers instead refused to allow Clay to see Harold in the hospital. The county then ultimately went one step further by isolating the couple from each other, placing the men in separate nursing homes.

"...without authority, without determining the value of Clay and Harold’s possessions accumulated over the course of their 20 years together or making any effort to determine which items belonged to whom, the county took everything Harold and Clay owned and auctioned off all of their belongings. Adding further insult to grave injury, the county removed Clay from his home and confined him to a nursing home against his will. The county workers then terminated Clay and Harold's lease and surrendered the home they had shared for many years to the landlord.

"Three months after he was hospitalized, Harold died in the nursing home. Because of the county’s actions, Clay missed the final months he should have had with his partner of 20 years. Compounding this tragedy, Clay has literally nothing left of the home he had shared with Harold or the life he was living up until the day that Harold fell, because he has been unable to recover any of his property. The only memento Clay has is a photo album that Harold painstakingly put together for Clay during the last three months of his life."

So cheers for President Obama for ordering hospital visitation rights for "unrelated" people - and gay people will keep on demanding that he come through on all his other promises!

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson: Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

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