President Obama extends health care rights to gay couples

President Obama issued a presidential memorandum Thursday night ordering hospitals to allow patients to say who has visitation rights and who can help make medical decisions, including gay and lesbian partners.

"Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides...Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. Members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions," Mr Obama wrote. "Also uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who 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."

The memo instructs Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to draft rules requiring hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid payments, "respect the rights of patients to designate visitors...You should also provide that participating hospitals may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability."

Mr Obama was strongly backed by the gay community when he ran for president, but was quickly criticized once in office for moving too slowly to fulfill campaign promises to expand their civil rights. Thursday's memorandum, which is being hailed as a major step forward for same-sex couples, certainly can't hurt the president's standing with the gay community. "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," wrote Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign.

But of course, there are critics. "President Obama's memorandum clearly constitutes pandering to a radical special interest group... (homosexual activists); undermining the definition of marriage; and furthering a big-government federal takeover of even the smallest details of the nation's health care," wrote Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council.