July 8, 2012

Truth test: Are domestic partners being denied hospital visitation rights?

While visits to hospitalized same-sex partners have been prevented, new rules deter this from happening.

By MICHAEL SHEPHERD Morning Sentinel

“In many states, same-sex couples that have domestic partnerships have been barred from a dying partner’s bedside, and denied the ability to say goodbye to the person they love.”

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ABOUT TRUTH TEST

TRUTH TEST is a regular feature of MaineToday Media's campaign coverage in which we cast a critical eye on the truthfulness of advertising and public comments by political candidates.

– Mainers United for Marriage’s “Conversation Toolkit” (a tip sheet for grassroots organizers in support of gay marriage)

The situation described in the statement has happened in the past. But it's a bit of a red herring if you're trying to use it in Maine's current same-sex marriage debate.

That's because if it's happening now, most hospitals in America and all hospitals in Maine will be in danger of losing funding from the nation's largest health payer, the federal government.

In 2010, the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued rules that require hospitals participating in Medicaid, the government health program for the poor, and Medicare, the health program for seniors, to allow patients to choose who can visit and how often.

A 2010 DHHS news release said all visitors chosen by a patient or their representative -- including same-sex domestic partners -- are to be given "full and equal" access to patients. The hospitals are required to have written policies on visitation rights.

Those rules went into effect in January 2011. Hospitals that don't conform could be terminated from participating in Medicare and Medicaid, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender interest group that advocated for the rules.

All 39 of the hospitals represented by the Maine Hospital Association, a nonprofit, voluntary interest group, accept Medicare and Medicaid, according to association spokeswoman Becky Schnur, who said she didn't know of any past issues with LGBT visitation rights in Maine hospitals.

Media accounts said President Obama was inspired to ask the department to establish the new rules after hearing the story of Janice Langbehn, who was barred from her dying lesbian partner's bedside in 2007 at a Miami hospital.

Other accounts detail similar incidents in Oregon and California, where partners were excluded from hospital rooms, both before 2009.

Langbehn and the couple's adopted children weren't allowed to visit her partner for eight hours as she died. Obama issued a memorandum in April 2010 asking DHHS to address the issue of LGBT visitation rights.

"Saying the problem is solved (nationally) would be a stretch," said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign. "It certainly has helped."

Guequierre said in the past eight months his group has heard of two cases of issues with LGBT visitation rights in Medicare- and Medicaid-affiliated hospitals. He said both cases stemmed from a single employee not up to date on hospital policies.

"In two cases, hospital administration has worked to remedy the situation almost immediately," he said.

Verdict: It's a literal fact that people have been barred from visiting hospitalized partners, but there's a framework that now deters this from happening. It's misleading not to cite the change in policy and suggest it as a reason to support same-sex marriage in Maine. For that, we're slightly downgrading the truthfulness of the claim.

We rate this statement mostly true.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 791-5632 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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