Editor’s Note: This post comes from Jane Stafford, Managing Director of the Community Clinics Initiative, a a joint project of Tides and The California Endowment.

Equality is Good MedicineWhile many in the LGBT community wait for President Obama to exert greater leadership on the issue of marriage equality, others in his administration have already taken significant steps towards recognizing the rights of LGBT couples.  Last week, the Department of Health & Human Services issued a press release titled “Medicare steps up enforcement of equal visitation and representation rights in hospitals… including same-sex partners.”  Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is quoted as saying, “Couples take a vow to be with each other in sickness and in health and it is unacceptable that, in the past, some same-sex partners were denied the right to visit their loved ones in times of need.”  This is welcome news.

Over the last few years, my same sex partner and I have spent thousands of dollars to make sure that our wishes about who would be at our hospital bedside and who would make decisions if we were unable to do so ourselves would be respected. The comfort that comes from knowing that you will be in the hands of your chosen loved one is accorded automatically by law to heterosexual couples.  By contrast, we had to create an intricate web of contracts and forms to assure ourselves that our wishes would be respected. Even with the pile of supposedly air tight documents safely stored in our lawyer’s office, we wondered if we were truly protected.  Who carries a stack of legal forms around with them – everywhere, all of the time?  We don’t plan for accidents or illness; what if the dreaded occurance happens in a non-progressive jurisdiction? Arriving at the E.R. without proof of these agreements could mean denial of visitation.

Medicare’s policy change is an important step forward toward full equality for the LGBT community in the health care context. Though the fight for full equality for LGBT citizens continues on many fronts – including federal tax benefits and marital recognition – we should take comfort from and pride in the progress already made.

Image via Flickr user Steve Rhodes, used under Creative Commons license.