HHS Asks Hospitals to Grant Visitation Rights Now

Janice Simmons, June 24, 2010

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asked the leaders of the major hospital organizations this week to urge their members to not wait for the conclusion of the formal rulemaking process before implementing new rules that would broaden the visitation rights of their patients.

In April, the White House asked HHS to initiate rulemaking to lift restrictions on unrelated visitors who act as surrogate decision makers and visit hospitalized patients. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on Tuesday issued a proposed rule that will revise the Medicare conditions of participation for hospitals and critical access hospitals to ensure the visitation rights of all patients.

Under the proposed rule, hospitals will be required to inform patients of their visitation rights, any clinical restrictions on those rights, and their right to receive any visitors they designate. Hospitals would not be permitted to restrict or deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. They also must ensure that all visitors designated by the patient have visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those for immediate family members.

The April White House memo noted that gay and lesbian Americans are often "barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives, unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."

Others affected include widows or widowers with no children who are "denied the support and comfort of a good friend," and members of religious orders are "sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf."

A sample letter was composed by HHS and sent to leaders of the American Hospital Association, Federation of American Hospitals, Association of American Medical Colleges, National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions, National Association of Public Hospitals & Health Systems, and Catholic Health Association of the United States to send to their members.

"Every patient deserves the basic right to designate whom they wish to see while in the hospital," Sebelius said in a statement. "Today's proposed rules 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."

"This proposed rule is an important step forward in the rights of all Americans to expect equal rights and privileges from the health care system, regardless of their personal and familial situations," said Marilyn Tavenner, CMS acting administrator. "In the environment of inclusion that this rule promotes, patients and providers can expect improved patient experiences of care."

The proposed rules are available for public comment for 60 days and will be finalized after CMS has read and considered the comments.

Janice Simmons Janice Simmons is a senior editor and Washington, DC, correspondent for HealthLeaders Media Online. She can be reached at jsimmons@healthleadersmedia.com.
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