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Healthcare Equality a Must in American Hospitals

The Miami Herald

Posted on Wed, Jun. 16, 2010


What happened to me and my family is unimaginable for most people. In 2007, the person with whom I shared my life for 18 years was rushed to the emergency room with a brain aneurysm. Far from home on vacation with our children here in Florida, my partner was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital, and I followed closely behind.

When I arrived shortly afterwards, I was told I couldn’t go to her side and instead paced around the lobby wondering about her condition. By the time they finally let me in hours later, it was with a priest as he performed last rites.

Dealing with any medical emergency is a nightmare, but because my partner Lisa and I were both women, some of our last moments together were robbed from us. I was told by an employee at Jackson that we happened to be in an “anti-gay city and state.”

The American healthcare system failed us. Even though I had power of attorney, JMH had no policies in place to explicitly protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) patients and their families, and so I was treated as a stranger. The hospital still refuses to apologize.

My life changed that day, and not only because Lisa was gone. I realized I had a story to tell, not just about LGBT rights — but about the human right to decide who should be with you in sickness and in death.

Earlier this year I received a call from President Obama telling me that he wanted no other family to have to go through what we did. In a memo directing the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to protect the visitation and medical decision-making rights of LGBT people, he wrote, “There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital.”

Luckily, the president was not alone in seeing the need for change. The Joint Commission, the agency that accredits and certifies healthcare facilities nationwide, recently announced new standards that require fully inclusive nondiscrimination policies. Taken together, these developments mean that LGBT patients and their families will have dramatic new protections for healthcare equality — in hospitals nationwide, from Florida to Alaska and everywhere in between.

And it’s a good thing, because my story is all too common. A new analysis of healthcare equality by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation found that more than nine out of 10 U.S. healthcare facilities don’t have fully inclusive policies toward LGBT people. Out of the thousands of hospitals nationwide, just 11 individual facilities and one network of 36 hospitals reported providing comprehensive healthcare equality. And tragically, less than a third grant equal-visitation access for same-sex couples and same-sex parents through explicitly inclusive policies.

In Miami, the report found four healthcare facilities that don’t include “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” anywhere in their Patients’ Bill of Rights or nondiscrimination policy: Baptist Hospital, Cedars Medical Center, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital.

Major healthcare providers are starting to understand change is coming, with meaningful results. Last week, Kaiser Permanente updated their Patients’ Bill of Rights and visitation policies to fully protect LGBT patients and their families from discrimination. One of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health providers, Kaiser Permanente’s network of 36 hospitals and 430 medical offices has a fully inclusive nondiscrimination policy for LGBT patients effective June 1.

The work of the HRC Foundation and Kaiser Permanente should put healthcare facilities on notice: Move toward greater inclusiveness, sooner rather than later, because that’s where America is headed.

Janice Langbehn is the surviving partner of Lisa Pond and advocate for LGBT healthcare equality. She lives in Lacey, Wash.