President Obama issued a surprise memorandum Thursday night, calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians by hospital visitation policies that limit visitors to immediate family members.

President directs HHS to crack down on hospitals barring LGBT partners

The timing for release of the memo was a little odd—at 7:29 p.m. April 15 while the president was onboard Air Force One enroute back to Washington from a day of events in Florida.

After signing the memorandum onboard Air Force One, the president then called Washington State resident Janice Langbehn to express his sympathy for the loss of her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond.

During a family vacation to Miami, Florida, in February 2007, Pond collapsed with an aneurysm and was taken by ambulance to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s trauma center. When Langbehn and their three children arrived at the hospital, a hospital social worker said they would not be able to visit Pond, even though Langbehn and Pond had executed a health proxy and Langbehn had a friend fax the document to the hospital.

Pond died at the hospital. According to a press release from Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, which is representing Langbehn in a lawsuit against the hospital, the president apologized to Langbehn for what happened to her family.

“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,” said Langbehn, in the statement. “I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through.”

President Obama’s memorandum directs the Secretary of Health & Human Services to “ensure” that hospitals which participate in Medicare and Medicaid “respect the rights of patients to designate visitors” and allow those visitors the same privileges as immediate family members.

More specifically, the memo instructs HHS to ensure that hospitals receiving federal funds not deny visitation based on sexual orientation or gender identity, along with the usual categories of non-discrimination.

Human Rights Campaign spokespeson Michael Cole said his organization had been working with the White House on the memo language for some time. He said he was unaware of any particular reason for the timing.

“It was a long process for them to get the memo language set and all of their ducks in a row,” said Cole, “so my impression is that this was the point at which it was done.”

The April 15 memorandum is the second memorandum issued by the president to specifically help LGBT people. In June 2009, President Obama signed a memorandum to the Office of Personnel Management Director requesting that the heads of all executive departments and agencies “conduct a review” of current benefits available to federal employees within 90 days “to determine what authority they have to extend such benefits to same-sex domestic partners of Federal employees” and submit a report on this to OPM.

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, called the president’s hospital visitation memorandum 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,” said Cathcart, in a statement issued Thursday night.

A federal district court judge dismissed Lambda’s lawsuit on behalf of Langbehn, saying there was no law requiring the hospital to allow Lisa Pond’s partner to see her at the hospital. On Monday, April 12, Lambda issued a press release saying it had reached an agreement with Jackson Memorial for “improved policies that are more responsive to the needs of the LGBT community.” But Lambda said the agreement does “not provide as much protection as may be needed in critical situations.”

Lambda noted that the president’s memorandum calls on HHS to take steps to ensure that hospitals respect legal documents that some patients have to designate who can make decisions for them if they become incapacitated. It also requires HHS to report back to the president in 180 days with additional recommendations for actions HHS can take “to address hospital visitation, medical decision-making, or other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families.”

Ironically, the pool reporter on board the flight back to Washington reported there was “No news on the way back” from Florida.

Meanwhile, Roll Call, a newspaper specializing in covering Capitol Hill, reported Thursday that the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has “drafted rules that for the first time would define gay married couples as ‘spouses’ for the purposes of filling out their annual Congressional financial disclosure forms.”

The forms are used by members of Congress and their staffs to make annual disclosures of any additional sources of income and investments by them and their spouses and dependent children. The draft rules propose requiring that any members or staff who have married same-sex spouses in Washington, D.C. or any of the states which provide for equal marriage rights to include information about their spouse’s finances, the same as straight members and staff must do about their legal spouses.

Roll Call quoted a spokesman for the Family Research Council as saying the draft rules violate the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The paper noted that the draft ruled had been removed from the committee’s website.

The Committee’s website currently lists instructions for filling out the form for calendar year 2008 disclosures even though the forms due next month are for calendar year 2009.