Gay advocacy groups applaud Obama hospital visitation rights order

Local advocacy groups for gays and lesbians are applauding President Barack Obama's directive to give same-sex couples visitation rights in hospitals.

"We're thrilled to move this issue forward," said Amy Johnson, executive director of OutFront Minnesota.

The president's memorandum, released Thursday evening, directs the Department of Health and Human Services to draft rules requiring hospitals that accept Medicare or Medicaid funding to allow visitation rights to gay and lesbian partners.

The President was reportedly inspired by a New York Times article about a lesbian couple in Miami who were kept apart while one lay dying in a hospital, despite having a health care directive that asked for full visitation rights for each other.

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In Minnesota, state law requires that hospitals comply with patients' health care directives. The legal document allows patients to authorize a person to make decisions about their medical care.

Despite the state law, Johnson said that some hospital workers have tried to bar a gay or lesbian partner from visiting or making decisions about their loved one's care.

"If you get somebody that is fearful or hateful, they can do so much to disrupt the smooth operation of a health care directive just by questioning it, just by the delay," Johnson said.

Johnson said that gay and lesbian Minnesotans have also faced problems with visitation rights when they've been hospitalized in other states.

Obama has asked the Department of Health and Human Services to study the issue and make additional recommendations within 180 days.

Johnson said she hopes the department will recommend giving patients the right to provide an "oral health care directive." She said the change would give equal rights to gay and lesbian couples who haven't written down their wishes in advance.