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Same-Sex Unions Pose Challenge To Hospitals

The absence of legal protections for same-sex couples made the news last year when a Kansas City hospital denied a man the right to stay by his male partner’s bedside.

Now many area hospitals are trying to make themselves more accommodating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients and their families.  

Nearly two years ago, Kris Saim received some harrowing news.  He was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer. But the diagnosis wasn’t the only thing he was worried about.

“Not only is it terrifying to have diagnosis like that, but equally as terrifying is when … you have to worry about a same sex partner being given the right to be at bedside while you’re in ICU,” he says.

Saim, who is gay, has been with his partner, AJ, for nine years. They live together and share financial responsibilities.

“He’s my husband, but not in the eyes of the state of Missouri,” he says.

Following his diagnosis, Saim worried that his lifestyle might affect the care he received from his doctor.

He had 10 days between getting the diagnosis and his first surgery, and he used the time to interview physicians and gauge how accepting they were. He also met with an attorney to make sure AJ would have all the rights a spouse would be afforded.

Putting it in writing

Many members of the LGBT community say it’s one of the steps they must take to ensure they receive the same treatment as married couples.

“If you said, ‘This is my wife, this is my husband,’ that entity gets treated automatically, without a second thought. Same-sex couples, nothing happens automatically. Everything has to be in writing,” says Kay Madden, a lawyer who represents LGBT clients.

AJ had to carry legal documents, including a living will and power of attorney, every time he entered the hospital.

“A nurse asked AJ to show that he had those legal documents during the time I was in the hospital," Saim says. "If we hadn’t taken the due diligence in having those prepared, that person might have made sure that AJ couldn’t have gone into the room.”

Missouri and Kansas both bar same-sex marriages from being performed or recognized. So even if a couple was legally married elsewhere, neither state recognizes their union.

Even so, some local hospitals are working to make their policies more LGBT-friendly.

One of them is Children’s Mercy Hospital, the only medical center in the area designated as a "Leader in LGBT Healthcare Equality" by the Human Rights Coalition, the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the country.  

“This process has been two pronged - not just looking at the patient care environment but also making sure that our LGBT employees feel welcome at work,” says Gaby Flores, the director of the hospital’s Office of Equity and Diversity.

LGBT-friendly policies

Flores says Children’s Mercy trained its staff to interact with nontraditional families in a nonjudgmental way, edited its forms to eliminate loaded terminology and changed the wording of its visitation policies.

“Visitation has been very proscriptive about kind of who can come in, two parents… There’s always been this mom and dad kind of scripting, so we’ve had to kind of reeducate staff on the visitation process,” Flores says.

Children’s Mercy had already started its policy overhaul when Research Medical Center made headlines for forcibly removing a gay man from his sick partner’s bedside.

That incident hit a little too close to home for Saim.

“The situation that happened, I think, at Research Medical where the partner got escorted out of the hospital, happened around the same time I was getting my treatment, and that was extremely frightening,” he says.

While Research says the visitor was removed for belligerent behavior, it, too, has opted to update its visitation and nondiscrimination policies. The Human Rights Coalition has since recognized those policies as LGBT friendly.

Hospitals often walk a delicate line between protecting patient privacy and ensuring they don’t discriminate against LGBT individuals. But Saim says he had a good experience at Menorah and North Kansas City hospitals, where he received treatment.

“I was fortunate enough that all of the hospitals that we went to, all of the healthcare providers that we worked with, were very accepting of us," he says.

Still, he doesn’t assume his relationship with a same-sex partner will be acknowledged. He says the burden of making sure he and AJ are treated the same as a married couple still falls on him.

“We still have those legal documents," Saim says. "Actually we just updated those legal documents within the last week. You have to stay on top of that stuff.

"Unfortunately, until our state passes the freedom of marriage for everyone, those are just things that unfortunately we have to deal with as gays and lesbians in Missouri.”

After three surgeries and an extended stay in the ICU, Saim is now cancer free.

Stefani Fontana is an intern at KCUR.

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