a long time coming.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama mandated Thursday that hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and allow same-sex couples to share medical power of attorney, perhaps the most significant step so far in his efforts to expand the rights of gay Americans.
The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo that was e-mailed to reporters Thursday night.
Administration officials and gay activists said the new rules will affect any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding — the vast majority of the nation's health-care institutions.
Many hospitals now allow only those related by blood or marriage to visit patients.
“Discrimination touches every facet of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including at times of crisis and illness, when we need our loved ones with us more than ever,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in praising the decision.
In his first 15 months in office, Obama has hailed the passage of hate crime legislation and held the first Gay Pride Day celebration at the White House.
Last month, Obama's top military and defense officials testified before Congress in favor of repealing of the “don't ask, don't tell” policy for gays in the armed forces.
But the moves have been too slow for some seeking equal rights for gays.
Other gay rights activists have defended the administration for doing what it can, while at the same time pushing Congress to act on broader issues such as passage of an employment non-discrimination act and an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Obama's memo to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius orders new rules that would ensure that hospitals “respect the rights of patients to designate visitors.”
The new rules do not apply only to gays. They also affect widows and widowers who have found themselves unable to receive visits from a friend or companion.
And they would allow members of some religious orders to designate someone other than a family member to make medical decisions.