Gays and lesbians, thanks to President Barack Obama's new order, have been granted visitation rights now, including for non-family visitors.
Obama's memorandum to the Department of Health and Human Services banned discrimination in visits to any hospital receiving federal funding for Medicare and Medicaid social insurance programs for the elderly and the poor.
AdvertisementThe move sought to end a common practice by hospitals that only allow family members related to the patient by blood or marriage and instead allow visits regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
It enables patients to confer medical power of attorney to their gay partners, authorizing them to act and make decisions about the patient.
The memo issued new rules to ensure that hospitals "respect the rights of patients to designate visitors."
"Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides -- whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay," Obama wrote in his memo to Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
"Uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives -- unable to be there for the person they love, and unable to act as a legal surrogate if their partner is incapacitated."
The president's decision was likely to place him back in the middle of a heated same-sex marriage debate as gay couples seek to have their unions recognized.
Gays can be legally wed in the US capital Washington and in the states of Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Obama has also called for repealing the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that bars gays from serving openly in the military but has moved cautiously since taking office a year ago.
He has extended partial federal benefits to same-sex partners of US government workers but he is under pressure from activists to deliver on his campaign promise on ending the military ban.
Opponents say the military is already under strain as it fights two wars and that large numbers of service members could quit if the change is introduced.