UCSF Community Celebrates Expansion of Visitation Rights

April 15 is not typically a day of rejoicing. But on that day this year, same-sex couples and others at UCSF and around the country found cause for celebration when President Barack Obama issued a memorandum that will require virtually all US hospitals to allow patients to be visited by anyone they designate.

The memorandum says that all hospitals participating in Medicare or Medicaid “may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

President Obama highlighted the impact of his groundbreaking memorandum on same-sex partners, explaining, “Uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans, who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives—unable to be there for the person they love.”

The memorandum also calls on the US Secretary of Health and Human Services to provide additional recommendations to the president “on actions the Department of Health and Human Services can take to address hospital visitation, medical decisionmaking, or other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families.”

President Obama also cited the visitation challenges faced by other patients. “Often,” he noted, “a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. And members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf.”

Step in Right Direction

The broad impact of the president’s memorandum was applauded by Shane Snowdon, director of UCSF’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center. “It’s a wonderful example of how steps taken to recognize the equality and humanity of lesbians and gay men can benefit other groups, too.”

“The new memorandum addresses one of the most painful forms of discrimination that same-sex couples face within health care,” continues Snowdon, who advises health professionals on LGBT needs. “But the sad truth is that many other challenges remain for LGBT people, like the health disparities we experience and the substandard health care we too often receive.”

Other UCSF community members also hailed the president’s action. Cindy Lima, executive director of the Mission Bay Hospital Project, notes, “While we at UCSF Medical Center have been on the leading edge in many respects concerning LGBT equality and support, the memorandum will make visitation rights unequivocally clear.”

Lima, who received the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for LGBT Leadership in 2007, adds, “This step is long overdue for so very many families. It breaks my heart to think of those who have been separated from their loved ones at their time of greatest need. When Kathy and I were planning to deliver our firstborn at UCSF over 16 years ago, we made sure to see every faculty member in the practice before the birth to be sure we didn’t have ‘issues.’ Thank you, President Obama, for doing the right thing around hospital visitation for all families.”

But UCSF professor of psychiatry Rob Daroff, MD, a longtime advocate for marriage equality, cautions that the memorandum may have limited impact on same-sex couples, absent the right to marry. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “But we know from this week’s news about the tragic forced separation of an elderly gay couple in Sonoma that even with all the correct paperwork in hand, LGBT families are still vulnerable to mistreatment.”

LGBT Center director Snowdon echoes Daroff’s warning. “California has guaranteed visitation to registered domestic partners for years — yet some couples have had their visitation rights challenged or denied. And even when they can visit each other, some partners hesitate to offer the simple gestures of comfort that other couples take for granted—a quiet word of love, a tender squeeze of the hand. We’ll know that health care is truly welcoming for same-sex partners when we can offer each other these very natural kinds of support, without fear of triggering bias.”

Still, Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations Barbara French observes, “A breakthrough like this certainly doesn’t happen every day. Every step we take towards full LGBT equality makes a real difference.”

Related Links:

Protecting Your Visitation & Decision-Making Rights, Human Rights Campaign

Presidential Memorandum: Hospital Vistation
April 15, 2010