Same-sex couples gain more rights at hospitals

Orlando Sentinel
Copyright © 2011 Orlando Sentinel Communications
Bob Lamendola, Staff Writer

Same-sex couples and other domestic partners are gaining more control over what happens to their mates in the hospital, under federal guidelines issued this week.

Hospitals should not bar domestic partners from visiting their mates unless there’s a medical reason, and partners should not be required to produce documents to prove their relationship, the guidelines say.

Also, if patients are incapacitated, hospitals should not deny domestic partners from being decision-makers, although they may have to prove they are health-care surrogates.

Couples in Florida’s gay population have had recurring problems with the health-care system but have seen more tolerance in recent years, said Tony Plakas, chief executive of Compass, a gay and lesbian community center in Lake Worth.

”This is a good step forward for gay rights,” Plakas said.

”There’s no reason a same-sex couple should be treated differently than a married couple in the hospital.”

President Barack Obama ordered the expanded rights last year in response to the case of a cruise tourist who was blocked from seeing her lesbian partner for more than eight hours at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami in 2007. The woman had a power of attorney faxed to the hospital but still was denied access.

The new guidelines tell 6,150 U.S. hospitals they could lose the right to treat Medicare patients if they discriminate against same-sex and unmarried couples. Many hospitals in Florida and the nation — including Jackson — changed their practices after the Miami case.

But gay and lesbian advocates said the new rules will not guarantee fair treatment.

For one thing, Florida does not recognize civil unions, which may make it harder for unmarried couples to prove their legal standing. Couples in some counties can register as domestic partners, strengthening their case.

Advocates urged unmarried couples to fill out documents naming each other as health-care surrogates and granting power of attorney.

”Is this strong enough to ensure there will never be discrimination against same-sex couples? Of course not. But this should be a powerful statement,” said Tara Borelli, an attorney for Lambda Legal, a nonprofit group that filed suit against Jackson Memorial in the 2007 case.