The Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday announced final regulations protecting hospital visitation rights of LGBT people.

The regulations require all hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding – nearly every hospital in the U.S. – to allow patients to designate who may visit them and prohibits discrimination in visitation based on a number of factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The regulations will go into force in mid-January 2011.

Lamda Legal, the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) and the National Health Law Program applauded the announcement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of new rules governing the treatment that LGBT patients and their families should receive in federally funded hospitals across the nation.

“Everyone should be able to have their loved ones with them in a time of crisis,” said Tara Borelli, a staff attorney who manages Lamda Legal’s health care fairness advocacy work. “While the new regulations don’t address every concern we’ve expressed – including what happens if a patient is incapacitated – we’re encouraging that HHS has said we can expect announcements of additional guidance. This is very important step to address the barriers many same-sex couple and their families face in medical emergencies. Same-sex couples should be aware, however, that they still need to complete documentation designating a health care agent to be fully protected under these rules.”

These regulations stem from a memo issued by President Obama on April 15 directing the HHS Secretary to take steps to address hospital visitation and other health care issues affecting LGBT families.