Washington (CNN) - President Barack Obama has told the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a rule that would not allow hospitals to deny visitation privileges to gay and lesbian partners.
The president's memo Thursday notes that "There are few moments in our lives that call for great compassion and companionship that when a loved one is admitted to the hospital ... Yet every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides ... "
Gay and lesbian Americans are "uniquely affected" by the relatives-only policy at hospitals, Obama said, adding that they "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."
Obama requested that the regulation should make clear that any hospital receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding, which mean the vast majority of U.S. hospitals, to allow patients to decide who can visit them and prohibit discrimination based on a variety of characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
The president listed widowers without children and members of certain religious orders among those who suffer under the policy.
The memo is a major step toward supporting the rights of gays and lesbians who have used the restrictions on hospital visitation as an argument in favor of same-sex marriage.
"In the absence of gay people being able to legally marry in most jurisdictions, this is a step to rectify a gross inequity," said David Smith,
an executive at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group. "Because without gay marriage, much more inequities exist, it should be applauded."
Smith said the organization had been working with the Obama administration for months on the request, and that it was sparked by the case
of a Florida lesbian couple who were kept apart as one died from an aneurysm. The rule would help hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) families, he said.
Obama's memo also requires the HHS regulations to guarantee that all patients' advance directives - such as who should make health care decision if the patient isn't able to do so - and direct the department to look into any other health care barriers that pose challenges to such families and make recommendations to the president on them within 180 days.
- CNN's Devon Sayers and Samira Simone contributed to this report.