In a nod to the rights of lesbian and gay couples, President Obama has ordered the nation's hospitals to allow patients to determine for themselves who has visitation rights and who can make medical decisions.
In a memo, Obama instructed the health and human services secretary to draft new rules for hospitals that receive federal Medicare and Medicaid payments.
The order gives LGBT partners the same visitation and health proxy rights that are enjoyed by immediate family members.
Most hospitals will now be banned from denying those privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Designated partner rules already have been legislated in Delaware, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Carolina.
"There are few moments in our lives that call for greater compassion and companionship than when a loved one is admitted to the hospital," the president writes in his memo.
"In these hours of need and moments of pain and anxiety, all of us would hope to have a hand to hold, a shoulder on which to lean -- a loved one to be there for us, as we would be there for them," he wrote. "Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides -- whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay."
One of the first calls made by the president was to Janet Langbehn to express his sympathies for the loss of her partner Lisa Pond at a Miami Hospital last year.
Langbehn and their children were not allowed at Pond's bedside for eight hours after she suffered an aneurysm while on a cruise vacation in Florida. Pond later died.
Obama told her that what happened to her was "outrageous" and thanked her for her courage.
"It was very rewarding to hear 'I'm sorry,' from the president because that's what I have wanted to hear from Jackson Memorial since the night Lisa died, " Langbehn said in a statement issued by Lambda Legal. "I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through."
Kevin Cathcart, Lambda Legal's executive director, hailed Obama's directive as a "great leap forward in addressing discrimination affecting LGBT patients and their families."
"These measures are intended to ensure that no family will have to experience what the Langbehn-Pond family did that night at Jackson Memorial Hospital," he said. "We are so proud of Janice and her family -- she stood up and told her story and it made a difference."
Obama's memo says that the "designated partner" rule could help members of some religious orders and seniors with no children who are currently "denied the support and comfort of a good friend," but "uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives -- unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been given six months to come up with other actions her department "can take to address hospital visitation, medical decisionmaking, or other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families."