Being There in Sickness and in Health

Another year, another Pride. Many things to be thankful for, many more to go.

President Barack Obama recently directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to prohibit discrimination against the partners of gay man and women in hospitals. He mandated that hospitals respect visitation rights and patient choices regarding who may make critical health care decisions for them.

While HHS may take some months to go through the rule-making process, it finally will affect any facility that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding.

Hospitals routinely deny any visitors who are not related by blood or marriage, a double bind for gay patients and their spouses, most of whom are not allowed to marry legally. If they did so in Massachusetts, or another state or country where same-sex marriage is legal, it may not be recognized as being such where the patient is hospitalized. These present rulings effectively bar a partner of many decades access to a loved one in his or her desperate or final hours.

Obama, quoted in The New York Times, said in his memo e-mailed to reporters, “Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindness and caring of a loved one at their sides.”

While the President’s order will have no immediate effect—barring an epiphany in which hospitals decide to act reasonably and humanely in advance of being ordered to—it is nevertheless a giant step for equality in the treatment of all American citizens.

What odd rationale applauds the training of service animals to visit some lonely, ailing patients, while denying others their loving and eager human partners?

I mentioned in an earlier column the parallels between a Marine Commandant demanding separate quarters for gay and straight troops, and the way black servicemen were discriminated against well into World War II. While I am not attempting to link black history exactly to gay history, all discriminatory practices seem to run along depressingly similar paths.

Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio noted that the financial lever has been used before: “When President Johnson signed Medicare into law in 1965, many hospitals were racially segregated. That new law said hospitals that received federal Medicare dollars would have to integrate. Initially there was strong resistance, but within a year of Medicare’s beginning, the desegregation of the nation’s hospitals was essentially complete.”

As so often happens, cash, not caritas, will be what moves the world along to a kinder, better place. So be it.

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