President Obama mandated Thursday that hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and allow ...

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WASHINGTON — President Obama mandated Thursday that hospitals extend visitation rights to the partners of gay men and lesbians and allow same-sex couples to share medical power of attorney.

The president directed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to prohibit discrimination in hospital visitation in a memo e-mailed to reporters Thursday night.

Administration officials and gay activists, who have been working on the issue, said the new rule, once in place, will affect any hospital that receives Medicare or Medicaid funding, a move that covers most of the nation’s health-care institutions.

Such visits already are allowed under Washington’s domestic-partnership law.

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It is common policy in many hospitals around the country that only those related by blood or marriage be allowed to visit patients or have power of attorney, which allows them to make medical decisions on behalf of a seriously ill or injured patient. Obama’s order will start a rule-making process at HHS that could take several months, officials said.

“Discrimination touches every facet of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including at times of crisis and illness, when we need our loved ones with us more than ever,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in praising the decision.

Gay-rights advocates said the rules change was inspired by the case of a same-sex couple, Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond. For three years, Langbehn, of Lacey, Wash., had been speaking out against the kinds of hospital policies that in 2007 kept her away from her partner of 18 years, Pond, until just moments before Pond died in a Miami hospital.

Obama called Langbehn on Thursday to say he was sorry that had happened. “He apologized for the way my partner Lisa died in Florida,” Langbehn said.

In 2007, Langbehn and Pond were on a cruise with their three children when Pond collapsed with an aneurysm. She was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. For eight hours, as Pond, 39, slipped into a coma, Langbehn, a social worker, tried to persuade hospital officials to allow her and the children to visit Pond.

Langbehn was allowed one five-minute visit when a priest administered last rites.

Last fall, Lambda Legal sued the hospital on Langbehn’s behalf. A federal court ruling said no law required the hospital to allow Langbehn and the couple’s children to see Pond. Lambda and other LGBT organizations worked to change the hospital’s policies on visitation and respecting the wishes of same-sex couples and their families.

Langbehn said she was notified 30 minutes before the president called Thursday. She said she was “very surprised and humbled,” by the gesture and his message.

“I’ve been speaking out for three years about Lisa’s death,” she said. “Yeah, we were able to change policy at one hospital. But they never apologized. But the president called to apologize and we’re now changing policy in the entire United States.”

Obama’s actions are the latest attempt by his administration to advance the agenda of a constituency that strongly supported his presidential campaign.

In his first 15 months in office, he has hailed the passage of hate-crime legislation and held the first Gay Pride Day celebration at the White House. Last month, Obama’s top military and defense officials testified before Congress in favor of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the armed forces.

But the moves have been too slow for some seeking equal rights for gays, who have urged the president to be more vocal and active in championing their causes. John Aravosis, a prominent gay blogger, wrote last October that Obama’s “track record on keeping his gay promises has been fairly abominable.”

Other gay-rights activists have defended the administration for doing what it can, while at the same time pushing Congress to act on broader issues such as passage of an employment nondiscrimination act and an end to the ban on gays serving openly in the military.

“We see this as part of our ongoing effort to encourage the administration to take action where it has the authority to act,” said David Smith, a Human Rights Campaign spokesman. “We’ve been working and pressing the administration on our legislative agenda. That work continues.”

Gay activists have argued for years that recognizing same-sex marriage would ease the stress associated with not being able to visit their hospitalized partners.

A spokesman for one group, however, said the president’s move was part of a broader effort to appease gays and to undermine the institution of marriage.

“In its current political context, President Obama’s memorandum clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special-interest group,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. He said his organization does not object to gays giving their partners power of attorney, but it questions Obama’s motives.

“The memorandum undermines the definition of marriage,” he said.

Obama’s memo to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius orders new rules to ensure that hospitals “respect the rights of patients to designate visitors” and to choose the people who will make medical decisions on their behalf.

The new rules do not apply only to gays. They also affect widows and widowers who have been unable to receive visits from a friend or companion.

And it would allow members of some religious orders to designate someone other than a relative to make medical decisions.

But it is clear the document is aimed at gays. A number of areas remain in which federal law requires proof of marriage, including receiving Social Security benefits.

“The (Government Accountability Office) has identified 1,138 instances in federal law where marriage is important,” said one gay-rights activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve knocked off one of them.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Lornet Turnbull contributed to this report, which also includes material from The New York Times.

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