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Obama extends hospital visitation rights to same-sex partners of gays

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President Obama signed a directive that gives same-sex couples hospital visitation rights after learning of the tragic case of one couple.

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

President Obama mandated Thursday that nearly all hospitals 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, perhaps the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans.

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The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo that was e-mailed to reporters Thursday night while he was at a fundraiser in Miami.

Administration officials and gay activists, who have been quietly working together on the issue, said the new rule will affect any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding, a move that covers the vast majority of the nation's health-care institutions. Obama's order will start a rule-making process at HHS that could take several months, officials said.

Hospitals often bar visitors who are not related to an incapacitated patient by blood or marriage, and gay rights activists say many do not respect same-sex couples' efforts to designate a partner to make medical decisions for them if they are seriously ill or injured.

"Discrimination touches every facet of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including at times of crisis and illness, when we need our loved ones with us more than ever," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement praising the president's decision.

Obama's mandate is the latest attempt by his administration to advance the agenda of a constituency that strongly supported his presidential campaign.

In his first 15 months in office, he has hailed the passage of hate crime legislation and held the first Gay Pride Day celebration at the White House. Last month, Obama's top military and defense officials testified before Congress in favor of repealing of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the armed forces.

But the moves have been too slow for some gay rights activists, who have urged the president to be more vocal and active in championing their causes. John Aravosis, a prominent gay blogger, wrote last October that Obama's "track record on keeping his gay promises has been fairly abominable."

Other gay rights activists have defended the administration, while at the same time pushing Congress to act on broader issues such as passage of an employment non-discrimination act and an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

"We see this as part of our ongoing effort to encourage the administration to take action where it has the authority to act," said David Smith, a Human Rights Campaign spokesman. "We've been working and pressing the administration on our legislative agenda. That work continues."

Gay activists have argued for years that recognizing same-sex marriage would ease the stress associated with not being able to visit hospitalized partners.

But opponents of same-sex marriage have called the visitation issue a red herring, arguing that advocates want to provide special rights for gays that other Americans do not have. A spokesman for one group said the president's move was part of a broader effort to appease gays and to undermine the institution of marriage.


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