Reporting from Washington — President Obama late Thursday ordered most hospitals in the country to grant the same visitation rights to gay and lesbian partners that they do to married heterosexual couples.
In a memo to his Health and Human Services agency, Obama ordered the secretary to ensure that all hospitals getting Medicare and Medicaid money honor all patients' advance directives, including those designating who gets family visitation privileges.
The order also requires that documents granting power of attorney and healthcare proxies be honored, regardless of sexual orientation. The language could apply to unmarried heterosexual couples too.
The presence of loved ones is more important during a hospital stay than at any other time, Obama wrote in his memo. Yet widows and widowers with no children are often denied the "support and comfort of a good friend," he said, as are members of religious orders.
"Also 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," he wrote.
In recent months, some leaders in the gay community have grown tired of waiting for the Democratic president to act on their issues since he took office more than a year ago.
But Obama has begun a steady campaign to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians serving in the military. And his memo on hospital visitation rights touches on an issue of long-standing concern for gays and lesbians and their families.
Although it is not one of the more controversial items on gay activists' agenda, the visitation issue could still inspire a political fight. One conservative thinker said late Thursday that the memo undermines the definition of marriage and represents government intrusion into healthcare.
The Obama memo is inspired in part by the case of Janice Langbehn, who was kept from seeing her partner, Lisa Pond, as she slipped into a coma. Last September a federal judge rejected Langbehn's lawsuit against Florida's Jackson Memorial Hospital, saying there was no law requiring the staff to grant Langbehn access to Pond's bedside.
After signing the memo, Obama called Langbehn from Air Force One, according to a statement issued by Lambda Legal, which represented Langbehn in court.
"It was very rewarding to hear, 'I'm sorry,' from the president, because that's what I have wanted to hear from Jackson Memorial since the night Lisa died," Langbehn said in the statement. "I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through."
Late Thursday, conservative leaders were just learning of the memo.
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council, said his organization doesn't object to people conferring a healthcare proxy or power of attorney on anyone they wish.
"But in its current political context, President Obama's memorandum clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special interest group," he said. "The memorandum undermines the definition of marriage, and furthers a big-government federal takeover of even the smallest details of the nation's healthcare system."
But Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said she hoped there would not be a furious fight over the move. Some people who oppose gay marriage or the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" have a different view on hospital visitation, she said.
"There may be challenges to it," she said. "But what we have seen across the country is that, no matter how people feel about same-sex marriage, people are overwhelmingly supportive of a person's ability to have their loved ones around them at times of crisis. . . . No one wants to be alone in a hospital."
Several states, including California, give some hospital rights to gays and lesbians. North Carolina recently gave patients the right to designate visitors whether visitors are legally related to the patient or not. Delaware, Nebraska and Minnesota have similar laws.
In his memo, Obama told HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to "expand on these important steps."
"For all of these Americans, the failure to have their wishes respected concerning who may visit them or make medical decisions on their behalf has real consequences," Obama said. "It means that doctors and nurses do not always have the best information about patients' medications and medical histories and that friends and certain family members are unable to . . . help communicate patients' needs."