April 16, 2010— -- 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."
Last September, a federal district court rejected Lambda Legal's lawsuit filed against Jackson Memorial Hospital on behalf of Janice Langbehn, ruling that no law required the hospital to allow her and their three children to see her partner.
Lisa Pond was playing basketball with her three children when she collapsed from an aneurysm on the first day of a 2007 anniversary cruise ship vacation.
But after the 39-year-old was rushed by ambulance to a Florida medical center, she fought for her life alone.
Langbehn, her partner of 18 years, told ABCNews.com that she and her children were never given a chance to say goodbye.
She said pleas to be at her partner's deathbed were not granted because the Lacey, Wash., couple were lesbians.
Lesbian Lost Lawsuit Against Hospital
Langbehn sued Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital and three medical professionals, alleging they "ignored" her needs and that of their legally adopted children and prevented her from making healthcare decisions.
"No one should die alone," Langbehn said.
Langbehn said a social worker at the hospital informed her, "I need you to know this is an anti-gay city and an anti-gay state, and you are not going to get to see her or know her condition."
"I felt like I was being put on notice," said Langbehn, now 41 and a social worker herself. She immediately called a friend to fax health care proxies and a durable power of attorney but the hospital disregarded the documents.
The hospital, through its lawyers, denied that their social worker made any such comment and said that saving Pond's life was the doctors' top priority at the busy trauma center that serves the entire county. They said the couple was treated no differently than any other family in such circumstances.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Southern Florida, alleged that the hospital staff was "motivated by anti-gay animus."
"From the moment Langbehn and the children arrived at Jackson Memorial Hospital, they encountered prejudice and apathy," the suit claimed.
Langbehn was represented by the gay activist group Lambda Legal, which said the case could determine the way hospitals treat not only gay and lesbian patients, but unmarried heterosexuals and single people who rely on friends.
LGBT groups have since charged that gay couples receive inconsistent access to hospital visitation and decision-making rights.
Pond had been the stay-at-home mother for their four adopted children, one of whom was not with them on vacation because he is living in a facility for disabled adults.
The family had just eaten lunch while the ship was still in port when Pond collapsed on the top deck while taking photos of the children, ages 9, 11 and 13.
Pond was rushed by ambulance to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial and the rest of the family followed in a taxi, arriving at the hospital at 3:30 p.m.
"But as soon as I pulled up [to the hospital] and got out with three young kids and seven pieces of luggage, I was stopped at the door: 'You need to take a seat,'" said Langbehn. "'Go through another door and park your luggage in a small waiting room.'"
There, the family sat during Pond's dying hours, except for two brief encounters with the doctors -- one to ask about a brain monitor and the other to report there was no hope left for Pond.
Langbehn was also allowed in Pond's room for five minutes to watch a priest give her the last rites, but she said her pleas to let the children see their mother were unsuccessful, even when she provided birth certificates.
"As that was happening, I kept thinking, I've got to get the kids back to her," said Langbehn. "They need to say goodbye to their mom."
When Pond's "real relative" -- her sister -- arrived just before midnight, Langbehn and the children were able to see her, though she was brain dead.
Despite providing legal health directives, Langbehn said, "Short of being straight, I don't know what I could have done differently."