Hospital Visitation ensured for LGBTQ Families

January 21, 2011

The new health care law, which was signed into law last year, enacted new regulations providing hospital visitation rights nationwide. This new regulation went into effect last Tuesday, January 18th. Under the new regulations, all hospitals that accept medicare and medicaid MUST allow all patients to decide who may visit them in the hospital and who may make medical decisions for them, regardless of “sexual or gender identity.” Hospitals are obligated to respect patients wishes.

What does this mean for Vermont LGBTQ families? Here in Vermont, we have had hospital visitation rights for some time, however when we leave the state, in the past we may have lost these rights. The essential step that LGBTQ people must take is to prepare the proper paperwork indicating one’s wishes, because if one is not conscious in the hospital, there is no other way to make your wishes known.

In the past, hospitals frequently refused to honor the wishes indicated in their patients’ medical powers of attorney, which indicate who should be present and make decisions about their care when the patient is unable to do so. Recent incidents in 2007 at a hospital in Seattle, WA, made headlines when a night-shift nurse refused to let the families of LGBTQ patients visit, even though the patient filled out all the proper paperwork. In one particularly heart-wrenching incident, a lesbian was in a car accident, and the nurse refused visitation by her wife and daughter. The nurse also refused to allow the patient’s wife to make medical decisions even though they had a valid medical power of attorney, instead trying to reach her estranged parents to make decisions. The nurse cited her religious beliefs and her revulsion to homosexuality as the reason for her actions. The patient died during the night and her wife and child never got the chance to see her, make decisions that might have saved her life, nor the chance to say goodbye before she passed away.

Similar incidents were common in the United States, and the new health care law law aims to address this, however having legal rights is different from exercising them. In Vermont, marriage (and civil unions, for those who have not yet upgraded) provides us with the rights of visitation and decision-making in hospitals. But our marriages may or may not be recognized when we leave Vermont. It is essential for us all to execute a “Medical Power of Attorney” and to ensure that our spouses know how to use them, should the situation ever arise. Out in the Mountains suggests that you seek the advice of a competent attorney to execute the paperwork.