By Lona O'Connor
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010
Activists in Palm Beach County were delighted Friday by President Obama's move to issue new rules covering hospital visitation by gay and lesbian partners, even though a county ordinance provides similar protections.
"This is monumental for people in the gay and lesbian community," said Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. "No matter where you live in America, you will be treated in the same way."
In Palm Beach County, an ordinance on the books since 2006 allows gay, lesbian and straight domestic partners to register. Once registered, the domestic partner has the ability to make health-care decisions for his or her partner.
A highly publicized 2007 Miami case showed what can go wrong when hospital employees deny a domestic partner access to his or her loved one.
Janice Langbehn was separated for eight hours from Mary Pond, her partner of 18 years, because Langbehn was not carrying documents proving that she was Pond's domestic partner. As Langbehn struggled to get the documents, Pond slipped into a coma and died alone.
On Monday, Jackson Memorial Hospital, where the incident occurred, announced new rules to protect domestic partners from a recurrence of the Langbehn case.
Obama called Langbehn from Air Force One on Thursday to let her know that he ordered all hospitals accepting federal Medicare and Medicaid money to allow visitation by domestic partners.
As usual, the devil could be in the details.
Though Palm Beach County offers protection to same-sex couples, the state does not. If a same-sex partner is unable to document his or her relationship to the sick or injured person, Florida hospitals are legally required to revert to a "next of kin" rule, calling parents, siblings and other relatives before they can recognize the domestic partner, said James Beaudreau, education and policy director of the San Francisco-based advocacy group Gay and Lesbian Medical Association.
Hoch and others urge people to carry laminated wallet-sized copies of their domestic-partner registrations that they can show to hospital personnel.
The presidential memo sends a strong signal to hospitals to make sure their policies do not discriminate.
"This is just a memorandum," said Beaudreau. "But it demonstrates that there is recognition (of gay couples) at the highest level."
Obama gave federal agencies 180 days to work out the details.
The next step, said Beaudreau, is to make sure hospital personnel are trained not to discriminate.
Hoch said that since the 2006 county ordinance protecting gay and lesbian domestic partners, he has not heard of any case such as the Langbehn incident.
And he does not anticipate any in the near future.
"Let me put it this way," Hoch said. "I would not want to be the person in the hospital who denies a legitimate domestic partner the right to help."