Florida groups fight for hospital visitation reform
Though the U.S. District Court for the South District of Florida has dismissed a lawsuit alleging discrimination in the case of a lesbian allegedly denied access to sit at her dying partner’s bedside in a Miami hospital, the case lives on through the efforts of those who continue to work to ensure others do not suffer a similar tragedy.
Washington resident Lisa Pond, 39, suddenly collapsed and suffered a brain aneurysm in Miami in Feb. 2007 while she, her partner of 20 years, Janice Langbehn, and their three children awaited to board a cruise ship. Upon being rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital, Langbehn was not immediately allowed to sit with her partner because Florida does not legally recognize their partnership. Doctors only allowed Langbehn to see her partner after Pond’s sister and brother-in-laws arrived eight hours later. Pond died five minutes later.
The court ruled on Sept. 29 the hospital was under no obligation to allow visitors access to patients in the trauma unit. Jackson Memorial insists it does not treat LGBT patients or visitors differently than others.
In the words of Beth Littrell, the Lambda Legal staff attorney who litigated the case, the court’s decision against her client was crucial in energizing advocates for hospital visitation policy reform.
"This story is so compelling and has galvanized a lot of people in Florida and beyond to demand that this result doesn’t happen again," Littrell told EDGE. "The litigation may be at its end, but our efforts to bring attention to the vulnerability of same-sex couples being viewed as legal strangers in emergency situations will continue. This story will continue."
The Committee for Fair Visitation at Jackson Memorial Hospital, an ad-hoc coalition of local, statewide and national organizations that works with the hospital to enhance their policies for visitors and patients alike, formed after Pond’s death. CJ Ortuño, executive director of SAVE Dade, said the hospital has been responsive to the committee’s call for change. They are reportedly in the midst of finalizing policies that are explicitly inclusive of same-sex couples and families, in addition to instituting staff training on the associated issues. Ortuño said he remains optimistic Jackson Memorial could become a "model hospital."
"This is an important protection for securing basic rights not only for LGBT people, but really for all people; anyone can be in this situation and it can be really scary," he said. "I think this is an opportunity to make some considerable gains in the health care industry as we have a broad base of support."
Though SAVE Dade has already succeeded in working with Miami-Dade County to adopt a domestic partnership registry that grants hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples, both Ortuño and other committee members recognize the effort to institute and enforce uniformly inclusive policies remains a much larger issue.
James Beaudreau, education and policy advocate at the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, noted fear of discrimination and stigma among LGBT patients is deeply entrenched and often results in increased health problems. But he also said many hospitals nationwide are increasingly willing to work toward increased inclusivity.
Through their use of the Healthcare Equality Index, instituted in collaboration with the Human Rights Campaign, GLMA hopes to provide healthcare providers with clear, measurable benchmarks with which to evaluate their existing policies.
"Many hospitals are already moving to change their policies quite quickly and we want to give them concrete steps to take to assess and make changes to their policies," Beaudreau said. "We’re really hoping to turn this tragedy into a good thing and help the health care industry mend some relationships with the LGBT community."
Littrell said calls for reform was a large reason why her client filed suit in the first place. She added, however, hospital administrators have yet to apologize for its staff’s actions. Littrell hoped any resulting policy change would be reinforced with vigilant enforcement.
"I think there’s some comfort to [Langbehn] and her children to see Jackson Memorial change their policies to help ensure the tragedy they experienced doesn’t happen to another family," she said. "But to ensure that the policies are actually implemented and worth more than the paper they’re written on, any changes need to be followed up with training to be implemented in a meaningful way."