On November 19, 2010, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a final rule revising the Medicare Conditions of Participation for hospitals and critical access hospitals to ensure equal patient visitation rights. Effective January 18, 2011, hospitals and critical access hospitals must inform patients of their visitation rights and must have written policies and procedures regarding visitation rights of patients. Such policies must address the patient's right to receive visitors, regardless of whether the visitor has a legal relationship to the patient, as well as address clinical and other reasonable restrictions on patient visitation rights.

This addition to the Conditions of Participation for hospitals and critical access hospitals arises from an April 15, 2010, Presidential Memorandum on Hospital Visitation to the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). Within the memorandum, the president directed HHS to develop requirements to address the rights of patients to choose who may and may not visit him or her, and to ensure that all designated visitors enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy. The memorandum specifically addressed that patients are often denied access and social support from certain visitors, such as a close friend or a same-sex partner, because such visitors are not immediate family members of the patient. The memorandum also notes that such visitor restrictions negatively affect t he care of the patient because such visitors may know valuable information about the patient.  

Specifically, these new regulations require hospitals and critical access hospitals to inform each patient (or the patient's support person) of his or her visitation rights, as well as of any hospital determined clinical restrictions or other reasonable limitations on his or her visitation rights, when he or she is informed of his or her other patient rights at the time of admission. The support person for the patient does not necessarily have to be the patient's legal representative, it could be any person who is there to support the patient during hospitalization. The hospital must specifically inform the patient (or the patient's support person) of the right -- subject to his or her consent and the right to withdraw or deny such consent -- to receive the visitors whom he or she designates, including same-sex domestic partne rs and non-family members. Furthermore, hospitals and critical access hospitals must have policies and procedures on patient visitation rights. These polices and procedures should include any clinically necessary or reasonable restriction or limitation that the hospital may need to place on such visitation rights, as well as the reason for the clinical restriction or limitation. Finally, hospitals and critical access hospitals may not restrict patient visitation rights based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability, and must insure that all visitors -- regardless of their legal relationship to the patient -- have the same visitation privileges consistent with patient preferences.  

The patient visitation rights regulation for hospitals will be set forth within 42 C.F.R. § 482.13(h). The patient visitation rights regulation for critical access hospitals will be set forth in 42 C.F.R. § 485.635(f). The new regulations are available here.