How Hospitals Treat Same-Sex Couples
Posted on May 13, 2009
Filed Under Uncategorized
During a medical emergency, a patient’s husband, wife, parents or other family members often are close by, overseeing treatment, making medical decisions and keeping vigil at the bedside.
But what happens if the hospital won’t allow you to stay with your partner or child?
That’s the challenge many same-sex couples face during health care emergencies when hospital security personnel, administrators and even doctors and nurses exclude them from a patient’s room because they aren’t “real” family members. The issue is addressed in a new report from The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. The groups have created a Healthcare Equality Index for hospitals that focuses on five key areas: patient rights, visitation, decision-making, cultural competency training and employment policies and benefits.
This year, 166 facilities across the country agreed to participate in the report, about twice as many as last year. The group says nearly 75 percent of the hospitals have policies to protect their patients from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, sometimes the policies aren’t correctly implemented by hospital workers. Some examples of unfair treatment of gay couples cited by the group include:
- A Bakersfield, Calif., couple rushed their child to the emergency room with a 104 degree fever. The women were registered domestic partners, but the hospital only allowed the biological mother to stay with the child. Although hospitals typically allow both parents to stay with a child during treatment, in this case, the second parent was forced to stay in the waiting room.
- An Oregon man whose registered domestic partner was unconscious was told to leave the hospital room because it was time for family members to make decisions about his care. He was forced to plead his case before hospital administrators before being allowed to stay with his partner, who was dying.
- A woman from Washington collapsed while on vacation in Miami. Although her partner had an advanced health care directive, hospital officials told her she wasn’t a family member under Florida law. The woman spent hours talking with hospital administrators to prove that the document from her home state was, in fact, still valid in Florida. Although she eventually prevailed, her partner’s condition deteriorated and the woman died. Because of the problem, the children the patient had been raising with her partner weren’t able to see her before she died.
While heterosexual couples typically don’t have to provide marriage licenses to hospitals in order to prove they are husband and wife, same sex couples often must document their relationship to hospital officials before being allowed to take part in a partner’s care.
“There is a real disconnect between what might be a good written policy or state law and actual implementation of that policy or law,” said Ellen Kahn, family project director for the HRC. “If you’re presenting as two men in a couple and you say, ‘This is my partner. I’ll make medical decisions,’ you’re asked a lot of questions. Who is this person to you? Do you have legal documentation that verifies that? A parent, sister or nephew could have more rights under the law than a same-sex partner who has been together 20 years.”
Although many hospitals have improved their treatment of same-sex couples, partners are advised to keep legal documents close by in the event of a medical emergency. Friends should also have ready access to documents so they can fax or e-mail them if necessary.
For couples who don’t have documentation or are worried that their relationship might not be recognized during a medical emergency, the solution often is to pretend to be a sibling in order to ensure access to a partner.
“If you’re on the road and have a crisis, the word on the street is just say, ‘This is my sister,’ or ‘This is my brother,’ ” Ms. Kahn said. “Most people won’t raise an eyebrow about it unless you look very different. It’s sad that we have to think about that. Am I going to be better off saying this is my sister or this is my life partner?”
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