The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) proposed new rules on Wednesday for hospitals that would help protect patients' rights to choose who will be allowed to visit them during a hospital stay, including their same-sex partner.
The rule, which will undergo a 60-day public-comment period starting Thursday, would require every hospital to develop written visitation policies and procedures as well as instructions on circumstances in which a hospital might reasonably decide to restrict access based on medical needs.
But a CMS spokesperson said hospitals would have to have "an awfully good reason" to deny someone access.
"It's an inclusive intent rather than an exclusive intent," Don McLeod said of the rule. "The preamble language to the rule instructs hospitals that they should not turn anyone away."
The press release from CMS said, "A key provision of the proposed rules specifies that visitors chosen by the patient (or his or her representative) must be able to enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those for immediate family members."
Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius added that the change "would ensure that all patients have equal access to the visitors of their choosing--whether or not those visitors are, or are perceived to be, members of a patient's family."
The rule follows a Presidential Memorandum issued by President Obama on April 15 instructing HHS to require that hospitals participating in government Medicare and Medicaid programs not deny visitation privileges to anyone on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Same-sex couples need no documentation of their relationship; patients can simply give a verbal cue to any hospital employee, according to McLeod. But he encouraged people to give an advance directive of their wishes, either in writing or to someone in front of a witness, in case you enter the hospital unconscious.
People often have "do not resuscitate" directives, McLeod said, "but here's a new reason to have one because if you have one now, they have to let your partner in."
Although the policy is still several months away from being finalized based on the requisite public-comment and review period, secretary Sebelius sent out a letter late Tuesday requesting that hospitals comply with the policy change immediately.
"Until such time as a final rule can be published, I would appreciate your voluntary support for the intent of the presidential memorandum by encouraging your members to review policies they may currently have in place and adopt and enforce patient-centered visitation policies, as contemplated by the president, to the extent that they have not done so already," she wrote.
McLeod said the new policy will cover "virtually every" hospital in the nation, since nearly all hospitals participate in Medicare and Medicaid programs.
"I don't have an exact percentage, but it's in the upper 90s," he said.