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Obama: Give Gay Couples Hospital Visiting Rights

President Barack Obama is moving to grant gay and lesbian partners the same hospital visitation rights as married couples - seeking new rules that would remedy a longstanding thorn in the side of civil rights groups.

In a two-page memo released Thursday, Mr. Obama asks the Department of Health and Human Services to write new rules for all hospitals participating in Medicare or Medicaid mandating the equal visitation rights.

The measure is not aimed solely at gay couples - Mr. Obama notes that widows and widowers, members of religious orders and others with loved ones who are not immediate family members can face the same predicament. Still he notes that gay couples are "uniquely affected … often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives."

Read the full text of the memo at CNN (PDF)

The changes Mr. Obama seeks would allow patients to designate any individual as a permitted visitor, including in documents - such as advance directives - that have legal force when a patient is in a coma or otherwise unable to communicate.

For affected groups, the status quo has "real consequences," Mr. Obama wrote.

"It means that doctors and nurses do not always have the best information about patients' medications and medical histories … It means that a stressful and at times terrifying experience for patients is senselessly compounded by indignity and unfairness. And it means that all too often, people are made to suffer or even to pass away alone, denied the comfort of companionship in their final moments while a loved one is left worrying and pacing down the hall."

The new rules would also prevent hospitals from denying anyone from being granted visitation rights on the basis of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or other discriminatory factors - but would still allow doctors' discretion over medical considerations.