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From the Archives: Establishing Equal Hospital Visitation Rights

On this day last year, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced new rules that allow hospital patients to decide who they want at their bedside when they are sick.

November 17, 2010 was a big day for anyone ever denied access to a sick spouse, partner, or loved one due to discrimination.

On that day, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that all patients in hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding must be allowed to decide who they want to be at their bedside when they are sick—regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

President Obama asked Health and Human Services that visitation rules be amended the previous April:

There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital. In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean -- a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them.

Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides -- whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay. Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. 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. 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 -- unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated.

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. 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 serve as intermediaries to help communicate patients' needs. It means that a stressful and at times terrifying experience for patients is senselessly compounded by indignity and unfairness. And it means that all too often, people are made to suffer or even to pass away alone, denied the comfort of companionship in their final moments while a loved one is left worrying and pacing down the hall.

Watch the story of Janice Langbehn, a Presidential Citizens Medal recipient whose fight for equal visitation rights inspired President Obama to take action.

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