HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Same Sex Couples in the Hospital

The New York Times provides some insight into the issues facing same sex couples in the hospital.  Tara Parker-Pope writes,

During a medical emergency, a patient’s husband, wife, parents or other family members often are close by, overseeing treatment, making medical decisions and keeping vigil at the bedside.  But what happens if the hospital won’t allow you to stay with your partner or child?

That’s the challenge many same-sex couples face during health care emergencies when hospital security personnel, administrators and even doctors and nurses exclude them from a patient’s room because they aren’t “real” family members. The issue is addressed in a new report from The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. The groups have created a Healthcare Equality Index for hospitals that focuses on five key areas: patient rights, visitation, decision-making, cultural competency training and employment policies and benefits.

This year, 166 facilities across the country agreed to participate in the report, about twice as many as last year. The group says nearly 75 percent of the hospitals have policies to protect their patients from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, sometimes the policies aren’t correctly implemented by hospital workers. Some examples of unfair treatment of gay couples cited by the group include:

  • A Bakersfield, Calif., couple rushed their child to the emergency room with a 104 degree fever. The women were registered domestic partners, but the hospital only allowed the biological mother to stay with the child. Although hospitals typically allow both parents to stay with a child during treatment, in this case, the second parent was forced to stay in the waiting room.

  • An Oregon man whose registered domestic partner was unconscious was told to leave the hospital room because it was time for family members to make decisions about his care. He was forced to plead his case before hospital administrators before being allowed to stay with his partner, who was dying. . . .

While heterosexual couples typically don’t have to provide marriage licenses to hospitals in order to prove they are husband and wife, same sex couples often must document their relationship to hospital officials before being allowed to take part in a partner’s care.

“There is a real disconnect between what might be a good written policy or state law and actual implementation of that policy or law,” said Ellen Kahn, family project director for the HRC. “If you’re presenting as two men in a couple and you say, ‘This is my partner. I’ll make medical decisions,’ you’re asked a lot of questions. Who is this person to you? Do you have legal documentation that verifies that? A parent, sister or nephew could have more rights under the law than a same-sex partner who has been together 20 years.” . . .

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