Saturday, April 17, 2010

The story behind the hospital story

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s Memorandum directing the Department of Health and Human Services to make sure hospitals do not automatically exclude same-sex partners because they’re not “blood relatives”. I pointed out that there were still problems with the memorandum.

The incident that brought attention to all this happened around three years ago. I wrote about it when Janice Langbehn (interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in the video above) filed a federal suit against Jackson Memorial Hospital, a suit that was dismissed by a judge in September 2009 after the hospital filed a motion arguing it had no obligation to allow anyone into the trauma centre.

Because I’d planned a follow-up to my original post, I asked the hospital to respond to questions raised by the incident. Responding for the hospital in February 2009, then-staff member Robert Alonso said that the hospital had “a very liberal visitation policy. Visitation in the emergency/trauma units of Jackson Memorial Hospital is determined on a case-by-case basis by the charge nurse and/or physician(s) caring for the patient.”

Foreshadowing the hospital’s motion in the lawsuit, he went on: “Visitor access often depends upon the patient's condition and the circumstances within the units at any given time. For safety and security purposes, it may not be possible for visitation to be granted if the units are busy and many life-and-death cases are being handled concurrently.”

The main question raised by the case was whether the hospital treated same-sex partners of patients differently. “Jackson Health System does not define a ‘visitor’ to have any particular characteristics or impose any requirements on that individual,” Alonso said. “Unmarried couples, whether of the opposite-sex or same-sex and all other individuals who have a relationship to the patient are treated equally. No particular documents are required. Documents are only required when medical decisions must be made.”

At the time, the hospital’s "Patient Rights and Responsibilities" said obliquely, "Patients have the right to considerate, respectful care at all times and under all circumstances, with recognition of their personal dignity, psychosocial needs, cultural, spiritual, personal values and belief systems."

In mid 2009, after the hospital met with GLBT leaders in Florida, they agreed to convene a task force “to review and enhance policies and training materials for all JHS hospitals and facilities to ensure that they reflect emerging standards of care for LGBT patients.”

As a result of this process, last week the hospital agreed with GLBT leaders that “providing equal treatment and care for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, or other aspects of personal identity, is of paramount importance in healthcare settings. It creates an environment in which all patients feel safe and comfortable receiving treatment, which results in a higher quality of patient care.”

I’m sure that this review and reform happened specifically because of the treatment that Janice Langbehn received. The hospital never apologised for its actions, denying that they did anything wrong. Instead, President Obama apologised for the appalling treatment that Langbehn received.

So, out of that tragedy good things emerged. First, GLBT people who find themselves under the care of Jackson Memorial Hospital can expect to receive the “equal treatment and care” they should’ve been able to expect all along. More importantly, GLBT people across the US will ultimately be treated better by hospitals wherever they live. That’s quite a legacy for Langbehn’s partner, Lisa.

But by far the best way to prevent any repeat of this sort of thing is for full relationship equality between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. No person dealing with a medical emergency affecting their partner should have to scrounge around for legal documents when a single, easily-identifiable proof of a relationship is possible.

The presidential memorandum may only be a starting step, but it’s an important one. We mustn’t forget that.


Roger Owen Green said...

my 1st thought is that people will (reasonably) way that Obama's not doing enough in this area, but I say that it's A WHOLE LOT BETTER than we could expect under W.

Arthur Schenck said...

I completely agree—so much so that I'm working on a larger post about all that.