Leading from the Left

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Equality North Carolina Secures Hospital Visitation Protections

If you are straight, you may never have thought about this. Most people haven't, frankly. But, for LGBT people, visiting your partner in the hospital can be a nightmare. Under NC law, you two aren't married and you're not blood relatives. So, basically, you don't have any legal right to participate in key medical decisions involving your partner's care, you are no legal right to receive information about your partner's condition, and may not even be allowed into your partner's room.

Imagine what that would feel like. Imagine if you were the patient and your partner wasn't there for you when you most needed him or her, when you were at your most vulnerable. Imagine if you were the partner, unable to assist an ill or dying partner. Not a good feeling, uh?

Well, as of this week, some of this has changed in NC. The state has adopted new rules that will allow a patient to designate anyone, regardless of relationship status, to visit his/her room. While this does not address the very real and very serious issue of participating in medical decisions, etc, it is a step towards fairer treatment for all. Below is the statement issued today by Equality NC:

North Carolina hospital patients will soon have a new right, ensuring that they can receive the visitors who matter most to them regardless of the legal status of their relationship. A new statewide rule will help ensure that same-sex partners and other loved ones will be treated the same as immediate family.

The rule adds a provision to the Patients' Bill of Rights, stating: "A patient has the right to designate visitors who shall receive the same visitation privileges as the patient's immediate family members, regardless of whether the visitors are legally related to the patient." The right applies to hospitals statewide.

"We know how important it is that patients have their loved ones by their sides, but all too often same-sex partners have been turned away when their partner is hospitalized." said Ian Palmquist, Executive Director. "The new policy will ensure that the patient's wishes are respected. This is a victory not just for same-sex couples, but for unmarried opposite-sex couples, caregivers, and other loved ones whom the state does not legally recognize."

Last summer, Equality NC Foundation petitioned the state to add this provision to the Patients' Bill of Rights, and has been advocating for it through the rule-making process. The Medical Care Commission unanimously approved the rule at its February meeting and on Thursday the Rules Review Commission gave final approval, allowing it to take effect on May 1.

Palmquist recognized the support of Sen. Kay Hagan (D-Guilford), who assisted the organization in seeking the rule change and securing the support of the N.C. Hospital Association. He also thanked Rep. Martha Alexander (D-Mecklenbug), who proposed legislation to accomplish the same goal in the 2007 session, along with co-sponsors Rep. Bill Faison (D-Orange) and Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake).

"Same-sex couples should know that this new policy only covers visitation," cautioned Palmquist. "In order to ensure that our partners have the ability to make medical decisions in the event we're incapacitated, we must still complete heath care powers of attorney."

Without a valid health care power of attorney, decision-making authority will go to the patient's nearest legal relative, and same-sex relationships receive no recognition under North Carolina law.

"This victory will have a real impact in the lives of LGBT North Carolinians," said Palmquist. "Equality North Carolina is working year-round to make North Carolina a state of equality."