Health Care has to be a Right for All, Including GLBT Families

In our national debate on health care -- we need to remember that in America, health care is a right, not a privilege. Too often that's not true for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. The absence of federal protections, inadequate state laws and inconsistent hospital policies often result in discrimination and inadequate health care for GLBT patients and their families.

Too many times, a gay man has been unable to comfort his partner, a transgender person has been ridiculed instead of treated, or a lesbian mom has been barred from seeing her child at the hospital. These are real-life situations that play out every day in healthcare settings across the country -- with devastating consequences.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association are taking steps to reform the health care industry by releasing a nationwide survey -- the Healthcare Equality Index (HEI) -- that for the first time ever will rate the nation's hospitals on a set of baseline standards of patient care for GLBT Americans.

This is the first step toward establishing a nationwide set of standards to reduce discrimination and ensure quality hospital-based health care.

Eighty-eight hospitals from across the country were surveyed on criteria such as patient non-discrimination, hospital visitation, decision making, cultural competency training and employment policies, and today we're joined by some of the industry's leaders in this arena - -the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.

We modeled this survey after our successful Corporate Equality Index, which rates corporations based on equality standards for GLBT workers. Today, as a result of the Corporate Equality Index, over 50 percent of the Fortune 500 offer benefits to same-sex partners -- up from just a handful in 2000. We expect the HEI to achieve similar results in the healthcare community by calling attention to discriminatory practices and, over time, establishing a "gold standard" of policies to ensure equality of treatment.

The HEI is an important step in the right direction. Because at what can be the most trying and difficult times in the lives of GLBT Americans, the failure to provide protections can be devastating. Ken Johnson knows too well how the lack of national standards can lead to discrimination and inadequate care. Today, Ken, a lawyer who lives in Northern Virginia, shared his story, which tells first hand what's happening each and every day to GLBT Americans in emergency rooms across the country -- and why we need better policies:

James E. Massey and I met on January 28, 2000. On June 28, 2003, we were united in a covenant ceremony, at National City Christian Church's Howland Center, in Washington, D.C. We subsequently registered as domestic partners in the State of California. On November 19, 2004, we finalized the adoption of our son.

On June 15, 2006, I received a call from one of James' co-workers, who said that James had collapsed at a CVS drug store near their Southwest D.C. office and had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. I then called 911 and was told that based on the location of the drug store, it was likely that James had been taken to Howard University Hospital. I then called a family friend and ask her to pick up our son from pre-school, while I went to Howard.

When I arrived at the emergency room at Howard, I asked the nurse at the desk whether James Massey had been brought to the hospital by ambulance. The nurse asked who I was and I explained: "My name is Ken Johnson and I am James Massey's domestic partner." The nurse replied that she could only release information to Mr. Massey's immediate family. I replied that Mr. Massey and I had been partners for over six years; that we lived together; that we had registered as domestic partners in the State of California; that we had executed wills and powers of attorney on each other's behalf; and that we had adopted a son together. The nurse's response to me was: "You're just the friend; I can only release information to immediate family members."

I waited for the nurse to leave the station and I walked into the emergency room and began looking behind each curtain to see if I could find James. (At the time, I did not care about invading other patients' privacy. I needed to find my partner and my son's father.).

When I found James, a doctor and a nurse were working on him. James was lying unconscious in a hospital bed. He was bleeding from his nose and mouth. The doctor asked who I was and I said that I was James' partner. The doctor explained that James had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage; that his condition was critical; and that they were going to move him to the intensive care unit. The doctor said that I could ride on the elevator with them and James to the ICU, but then I would have to leave.

When we arrived at the ICU, I told James that I loved him. I then left James' room, according to the doctor's instruction.

At our covenant ceremony, I took James to be my life partner, "for better for worse,
for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death." At the ceremony, I promised James: "I'm not leaving, no matter what."

I did not want to leave James' hospital room because I did not want him to die alone. But I knew that if I wanted to see him again and be involved in making decisions about his health care, that I would have to drive to our home in Fairfax County, Virginia, so that I could get our wills, living wills and powers of attorney.

After a few minutes, my friend arrived at the hospital and I asked her to drive me home. Due to traffic, it took us about two and a half hours to drive to my home; get the wills, living wills and powers of attorney; and drive back to the hospital. While we were gone, decisions were made about James' health care that did not consider his wishes, as reflected in the living will that he had signed. When I returned to the hospital with our wills, living wills and powers of attorney, I was allowed to be involved in making decisions about James' health care and to spend the night in James' room. The next day, June 16, 2006, James died.