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Hospital visitation, latest step in delicate dance on gay rights in U.S.

"Gay rights activists cheered Obama's memo on hospital visitation rights, but the president faces increasing tension with constituencies who helped elect him and expected faster results."

Christian Science Monitor reports:
The president’s memorandum, released Thursday night, directs the Department of Health and Human Services to draft rules requiring hospitals that accept Medicaid and Medicare funding to “respect the rights of patients to designate visitors” and representatives authorized to take part in medical decisionmaking. The directive’s central focus is same-sex couples, though other categories of people would also be covered, including widows and widowers who choose to designate friends.

Gay rights activists praised Mr. Obama over the move, perhaps the biggest expansion yet of gay rights since his election. But they also made clear that their agenda remains long, and includes the repeal of a federal law barring recognition of same-sex marriage and a ban on military service by openly gay people. Obama opposes gay marriage, but supports civil unions that afford the rights of full marriage.

The president's tensions with the gay community are similar to those between him and other constituencies – including blacks, Hispanics, women, and labor – that supported his campaign and expected big things after eight years of the Bush administration. Analysts see two factors at play: one, Obama’s deliberative style, and two, the immense issue agenda he has taken on, a combination of his own goals and inherited problems, including two wars and an economic crisis.

One striking feature of the visitation memo is its emotional language in expressing sympathy for the gay and lesbian couples that have been barred from hospital bedsides because they are not related by blood or marriage. “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 directive begins. “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.” READ MORE

(Los Angeles Times) Same-sex partners must get the same privileges granted heterosexual couples in hospitals that get Medicare or Medicaid funds, President Obama says in a memo:
President Obama late Thursday ordered most hospitals in the country to grant the same visitation rights to gay and lesbian partners that they do to married heterosexual couples. In a memo to his Health and Human Services agency, Obama ordered the secretary to ensure that all hospitals getting Medicare and Medicaid money honor all patients' advance directives, including those designating who gets family visitation privileges.

The order also requires that documents granting power of attorney and healthcare proxies be honored, regardless of sexual orientation. The language could apply to unmarried heterosexual couples too.

The presence of loved ones is more important during a hospital stay than at any other time, Obama wrote in his memo. Yet widows and widowers with no children are often denied the "support and comfort of a good friend," he said, as are members of religious orders. "Also 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," he wrote.

In recent months, some leaders in the gay community have grown tired of waiting for the Democratic president to act on their issues since he took office more than a year ago. READ MORE
(Washington Post) Gay visitation order shows how Obama brings big change with small actions:
President Obama's decision Thursday night to grant same-sex couples hospital visitation rights is the latest and most visible example of a strategy to make concrete steps toward equality for gays and lesbians without sparking a broad cultural debate or a fight with Congress. It will take more than six months for the Department of Health and Human Services to implement Obama's order. READ MORE
(New York Times) Hospital decision safe ground on gay rights for Obama:
President Obama has found a way to support gay rights that least offends those who oppose them. Allowing same-sex partners the same rights as straight couples to visit and make medical decisions for their hospitalized loved ones enjoys broad public backing, even as the country remains polarized over the question of marriage rights for gay men and lesbians.

Mr. Obama’s unexpected move, which was announced through a memorandum released Thursday night, brought muted responses from conservative groups. Rather than argue that same-sex partners should not be granted equal medical rights, they asserted that Mr. Obama was pandering to his political base and undermining the traditional definition of marriage. They also said that Mr. Obama was reinforcing the idea that his is a left-leaning administration that dictates solutions from Washington.

But they did not say Mr. Obama’s argument — that gay men and lesbians deserve the same rights as others to have partners visit them in hospitals or make medical decisions that were previously agreed — was wrong on the merits. Public opinion polls show that those measures are widely supported, at times by more than 8 in 10 Americans, even though fewer than half of poll respondents typically support same-sex marriage.

“I think it’ll be relatively noncontroversial,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster in Virginia. “In this day and age, basic rights are deemed to be accorded to everyone. This allows him to give something to his base without worrying too much about backlash on the other side.” Republican leaders and potential presidential candidates were uncommonly quiet on Friday, suggesting that Mr. Obama had located a rare bit of breathing room on a political landscape that is often crowded, contentious and noisy.

The socially conservative Family Research Council issued a statement calling the issue of medical rights for gay men and lesbians “a complete red herring” but saying it had “no objection” to individuals conferring decision-making powers to whomever they wish.

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative grass-roots group based in Georgia, said his primary objection was not to medical rights for same-sex couples, but to Mr. Obama’s imposition of them from the White House. He said he did not think the Obama directive would have a significant political impact in and of itself. READ MORE

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