Making Health Care Equality a Reality
BY Winston Gieseke
March 09 2011 4:00 AM ET
Just as Janice Langbehn, partner Lisa Pond, and their three children were about to board a cruise ship in Miami, Pond suffered an aneurysm, collapsed, and was taken to an area trauma center. Though she and Pond had been together for 18 years they were not legally married, and the hospital, which did not view the Lacey, Wash.–based couple as “real” partners, prevented Langbehn from being at Pond’s bedside while she lay dying.
Charlene Strong of Seattle has a similarly agonizing story. When Kate Fleming, her partner of nine years, was trapped in the basement of their home during a flash flood, Strong risked her own life trying to save her. She then followed the ambulance that rushed Fleming to the hospital but was not allowed in the room until she had managed to track down one of Fleming’s out-of-state family members, who gave consent for Strong to be present as Fleming passed away. Also staggering is the case of Erin Vaught, a transgender woman who says she was ridiculed, called a “he-she,” and denied treatment altogether at a Muncie, Ind., emergency room, even though she had coughed up a large quantity of blood.
The stakes are rarely higher than they are in hospitals — sometimes a matter of life and death — but medical facilities have no standard practice when it comes to something as fundamental as letting patients determine the person they wish to have at their bedside or to make medical decisions on their behalf. Inhumane or bigoted hospital policies have a disproportionate impact on LGBT patients.
For the past four years the Human Rights Campaign, in conjunction with the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, has sought to battle the inequities in hospital policies as they affect LGBT people. Each year the HRC publishes the results of a survey in which U.S. health care facilities self-diagnose their ability to provide equitable treatment to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender patients and their families as well as LGBT employees.
The most recent Healthcare Equality Index, which was released last June, included data from 116 hospitals and 62 clinics, and yielded the HRC’s list of top performers.
Unfortunately, the report illustrates that while more facilities are striving to provide welcoming and competent care for everyone, America’s hospital system as a whole falls short in meeting the needs of gay patients. Only a small percentage of participating facilities scored positively in all of the survey’s four key measures (patient nondiscrimination, visitation rights, cultural competency training, and employee nondiscrimination), while a large percentage of the facilities — a whopping 70% — failed to include gender identity in their patient nondiscrimination policies.
Fortunately, much has happened since last summer.