Friday, April 16, 2010

Hospital Visitation Rights

Yesterday the White House Press Office released a presidential memorandum directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue (and then enforce) rules designed to protect hospital patients and their loved ones in their moment of need. Hospitals that participate in Medicare and Medicaid (in effect most hospitals), would have to respect their patients' right to designate visitors with "visiting privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy."

The new rules would include provisions barring hospitals which receive reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid from denying visitation privileges "on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability."

Most people, either because they are married or because they have a loving son or daughter, take these rights for granted. They expect their husband and wife to be there for them in their moment of need, when they are feeling particularly weak and vulnerable and they expect the doctors, nurses and residents who may be caring for their physical needs and provide any family members or significant others with the space to care for their emotional needs.

Hospital staff in general respect the visitation rights of a patient's spouse, parent, or child. And most Americans, nowadays, would be surprised if hospital staff denied visitation rights to a spouse of a different race or religion. These rights which most people take for granted, however, are denied, may be denied when the hospital staff dealing with a gay patient and his or her same-sex lover, partner or spouse.

Occasionally we may hear about such cases from a surviving partner who decides to tell their story so that this would not happen again. Janice Langbehn, accused a social worker at Jackson Memorial Hospital of denying her the right to visit her partner, Lisa Pond. Pond died of a brain aneurysm while in the hospital's care.

A spokesperson for the Family Research Council, a conservative political organization that opposes anything that could make a gay person's life easier, predictably condemned the president for issuing this memorandum. Peter Sprigg said that the memorandum, "In its current political context, "clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special interest group." Though he claims that the Family Research Council does not object when gays have advanced directives, Sprigg says "the memorandum undermines the definition of marriage."

No one apparently bothered to ask Mr. Sprigg how granting someone the right to visit their loved one, or allowing a patient the right to determine who can or cannot visit him or her during a hospital stay undermines marriage. I guess Mr. Sprigg believes marriage is undermined because hospitals will be forced to respect the weight a patient gives to a relationship he or she has with another individual, whether it is the approved sexual relationship or not.

Providing these benefits can easily be justified without reopening the debate over marriage. The hospital, after all, is a business that is providing a service to its customers who in this case include the patient and those whom the patient confides in. The customer wants to leave the facility as soon as possible with as little stress as possible. Respecting the clients' wishes at this point in their lives shouldn't be too difficult when this is taken into account.

Empathy was never Peter Sprigg's strong suit but hearing socially conservative spokespeople condemn the president for issuing a directive that merely protects a hospital patient and his or her family in their most desperate time of need does have its assets. Mr. Sprigg, apparently would be perfectly satisfied if the hospital or any doctor or nurse that works in it rejects a gay patient's plea to see his or her same-sex loved one while recovering from bypass surgery, and he would be content if the doctors and nurses in any such institution denied the loved one access to the patient he or she loves.

By opposing this memorandum, Mr. Sprigg's reminded us that religious conservatives like him rationalize empathy like health insurance companies rationalize care. People who adhere to his understanding of what is right and what is wrong are deserving of our sympathy while those who do not are reserved none.

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