The executive order President Barack Obama signed last week – which effectively grants same-sex couples medical decision-making and hospital visitation rights for their partners – will not greatly affect hospitals in the District, a hospital ethics expert said this week.
On April 15, Obama ordered his Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to require all hospitals receiving Medicaid and Medicare to extend visitation and medical decision-making rights to same-sex couples.
GW alumna and director of the Center of Ethics for the Washington Hospital Center Nneka Mokwunye said D.C. hospitals have treated same-sex couples the same as heterosexual couples since 2003, when the Health Care Decisions Act was passed. The Act grants domestic partners the right to make healthcare decisions for their significant others.
Dr. Gary Little, medical director for GW Hospital, said GW Hospital already extends visitation rights to same-sex couples.
“We recognize that it’s important for patients to have the support of those closest to them when facing illness or even routine surgery,” Little said in an e-mail.
Mokwunye said the memorandum is aimed at less “forward-thinking” hospitals that are not accustomed to same-sex couples.
“Same-sex relationships have been a priority in our eyes,” Mokwunye said. “There were many [situations where] same-sex partners knew [hospital patients] better, and should make decisions for them.”
Mokwunye said the memo highlights that the fact that there are still “a lot of places” that are not as accepting of same-sex couples.
While it is not a law, Obama’s memorandum outlined clear steps for hospitals to follow, stating that all hospitals participating in Medicaid and Medicare be “no more restrictive” on designated visitors than on immediate family members.
Obama said not allowing same-sex couples visitation and decision-making rights is a violations of human rights, stating in the memorandum that some people are “denied the comfort of companionship,” forcing gay or lesbian hospital patients to “suffer or even pass away alone.”
“Part of getting better is having the people who love you, around you,” said Mokwunye, adding that to deny same-sex couples this right “hampers” their ability to comfortably heal from illness during their time in the hospital.
The presidential memo also called for assurance that all hospitals participating Medicare and Medicaid programs are in “full compliance” with the regulation, to guarantee that other patient rights, such as health care proxies, are respected.