OVERDUE PROGRESS ON HOSPITAL VISITATION RIGHTS…. The Obama administration has taken some important steps over the last year on gay rights, but arguably none is more important than the change announced last night.

President Obama on Thursday ordered his health secretary to issue new rules aimed at granting hospital visiting rights to same-sex partners.

The White House announced the rule changes, which will also make it easier for gay men and lesbians to make medical decisions on behalf of their partners, in a memorandum released Thursday night. In it, the president said the new rules would affect any hospital that participates in Medicare or Medicaid, the government programs to cover the elderly and the poor.

“Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindness and caring of a loved one at their sides,” Mr. Obama said in the memorandum, adding that the rules could also help widows and widowers who rely on friends and members of religious orders who care for one another. But he says gay men and lesbians are “uniquely affected” because they are often barred from visiting partners with whom they have spent decades.

Because nearly every American hospital receives at least some federal funding, the policy change is expected to have a significant national impact. It will not be immediate — HHS will begin a rule-making process — but the shift is expected to take effect later this year.

The change was reportedly inspired, at least in part, by the ordeal a Florida family endured in 2007. Lisa Pond was stricken with a fatal brain aneurysm, and partner of 18 years, Janice Langbehn, and their four adopted children, were prohibited from seeing her. Langbehn had power of attorney for Pond, but officials still refused. Pond died before her loved ones were even allowed into her hospital room.

Last night, President Obama called Langbehn to tell her about his administration’s new policy. “I was so humbled that he would know Lisa’s name and know our story,” Langbehn told the NYT. “He apologized for how we were treated. For the last three years, that’s what I’ve been asking the hospital to do. Even now, three years later, they still refuse to apologize to the children and I for the fact that Lisa died alone.”

A spokesperson for the Family Research Council, a leading anti-gay religious right group, characterized the policy shift as “pandering,” and whined, “The memorandum undermines the definition of marriage.” This is the same Family Research Council that recently labeled Obama “our first gay president.”

Whatever. The far-right can pout and send ugly fundraising letters about this, but decent people will still be able to consider this development for what it is: another breakthrough for decency, compassion, and common sense.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.