How is it that one of the most incredibly important and far-reaching new health policies of the twenty-first century went into effect this past week, and you probably haven’t heard of it? I’m referring to the new guidelines that protect the rights of all patients at more than 6,000 hospitals participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs to put anyone they choose on their visitation list. Despite the fact that this policy has implications for everyone in the United States, it’s been underreported overall and misreported by straight mainstream media as a same-sex partners story.
This is real, people. Bravo if you’ve been lucky enough to be spared the experience that many of us have had, queer or not, of being barred from a loved one’s hospital bedside because you’re not "family," or tossed out when family visiting hours are over. But it’s unforgettable, demoralizing, infuriating. Not being there for the person you love when they’re sick, vulnerable, or just plain lonely makes you feel like you’ve failed them in the worst way possible. You just want to pick up the nurse’s station and heave it.
We’re not just talking about LGBT people or partners here, though the hospital visitation issue allegedly first came to President Obama’s attention via the horrifying story of Janice Langbehn and her partner, Lisa Pond. Unlike most Americans, they had actually taken the important step of signing an Advanced Healthcare Directive; theirs designated Janice as Lisa’s legal representative. It didn’t matter. During a Florida vacation, Lisa collapsed from an aneurysm: she died while Janice and her children begged in vain to be allowed to see her—because they weren’t "family." And we’re not just talking about Southern states. In hipster Seattle, hospital staff barred Charlene Strong from the bedside of her partner of ten years, Kate Fleming, claiming that she was not immediate family. By the time another relative of Fleming’s gave permission by phone for Charlene to visit, Kate had only hours left to live.
Thanks in large part to the comments submitted by the National Coalition for LGBT Health (which also include the two prior stories: read them), this new rule opens the door to all visitors the patient considers important. It’s a radical step toward embracing an approach to "family" that breaks us out of the Dad, Mom, Bud and Sis configuration that still looms so large in the American imagination and in its laws despite the fact that fewer and fewer of us live in those family units. Now you can be by your best friend’s side whether you’re Carmelite nuns or used to play soccer together, or work together or look alike or not. It doesn’t matter whether your aunt approves of you and your "shiksa whore" girlfriend or your transgender spouse, so long as your cousin wants you there.
Of course policy is only as good as we are when it comes to enforcement: people should know about the new visitation rules and ask for them when they’re not offered—and they won’t always be, for a lot of reasons, ranging from administrators’ lack of knowledge to prejudice.
But what a joy to know that the option now exists: that we no longer need to be afraid of letting down the people we love when they need us most.