It’s hard enough to be sick in a hospital. Now imagine you’re there and the one you share your life with is deliberately left out of medical decision making or even barred from visiting.
Not a problem for married heterosexuals but a big problem for lesbian and gay couples. Because our relationships are not legally recognized in most of our fifty states, lesbians and gays can find themselves in legal limbo when it comes to protecting the health and well being of our loved ones—and not just our partners but our children as well.
Just ask Kenneth Johnson, an attorney who lived with his partner, James Massey and their adopted son, in Virginia. When they lived in California, they had legally registered as domestic partners.
In 2006, Massey was rushed unconscious to Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Because their relationship was not legal, Johnson had to go back home to retrieve documents—like a medical power of attorney or a health care proxy—before the hospital would allow him to make medical decisions on the part of his life partner. Instead of being able to just be with his partner, unencumbered from the red tape and homophobia, Johnson had to fight for his rights as James slipped away. He died the following day.
These are the stories of our lives. In most states, second parent adoptions are not the norm so when two gay men adopt a child only one has the bone fide legal relationship, only one can legally make healthcare decisions despite the fact that both are equally committed to raising the child.
The Human Rights Campaign in partnership with the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association have embarked on an ambitious project to help alleviate the pain and frustration we must endure in healthcare settings because our relationships are devalued or because as individuals we are devalued because of who we love.
HRC’s new project is called the Healthcare Equality Index, HEI for short. Similar to its Corporate Equality Index which over the years has had a substantial impact on the employment practices of Fortune 500 companies, the HEI seeks to determine how well our hospitals treat lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
All hospitals and hospital systems in the United States were invited to participate in an online survey which focused on five healthcare policy areas—patient non-discrimination, hospital visitation, decision making, cultural competency training for hospital staff and hospital employment practices. Only 88 hospitals or systems participated. 45 responded positively to each of the 10 LGBT specific survey questions.
So what were these questions? They were quite simple really. Did the hospital’s patient bill of rights or non-discrimination policy include sexual orientation or gender identity? Did the hospital’s written visitation policy allow LGBT domestic partners the same access as heterosexual spouses and next of kin? Did same-sex parents have the same access to their children as opposite sex parents? Did the hospital have a policy recognizing the ability of same-sex partners to make healthcare decisions for one another or same-sex parents for their kids? When the hospitals’ staff gets trained does that training include cultural competency on LGBT patients and their families? Did the hospitals’ own non-discrimination policies include sexual orientation and gender identity? Did the hospital offer domestic partner benefits?
These are important questions to ask. But they’re questions you don’t want to have to think about when you or a loved one is suddenly a patient. You just want to know you’re going to get the best healthcare possible regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
While only a handful of hospitals responded to the survey, it is an important first step in advancing these policy issues in our nation’s hospitals. When the Corporate Equality Index began, only 13 Fortune 500 companies received a perfect score. By 2008 the number had increased to195. I expect that as word of the Healthcare Equality Index gets out, more LGBT hospital employees will talk to their CEOs about it and, in turn, the CEOs will talk to each other and before we know it hundreds of hospitals will be answering all the questions correctly.
The Healthcare Equality Index defines ten easy steps to start making the healthcare system inclusive for LGBT families. With all that’s wrong with our healthcare system, I would hope that hospitals would jump at the opportunity to adopt a common sense, low-cost alternative that heals wounds of a different kind.