Mutual commitment registry sought in Mesa - East Valley Tribune: News

Mutual commitment registry sought in Mesa

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Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009 8:52 pm | Updated: 3:10 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

When Stephanie Zinn rushed her partner, Meta Goforth-Zinn, to an East Valley emergency room, hospital staff asked Stephanie to call Meta's family. Stephanie said, "I am her family." But no one would listen to her until she produced a medical power of attorney document giving her the right to be at the bedside of her longtime lesbian partner.

When Stephanie Zinn rushed her partner, Meta Goforth-Zinn, to an East Valley emergency room, hospital staff asked Stephanie to call Meta's family.

Stephanie said, "I am her family."

But no one would listen to her until she produced a medical power of attorney document giving her the right to be at the bedside of her longtime lesbian partner.

"Before she brought that piece of paper, Stephanie got absolutely pushed out of the room," Meta said. "It was basically a case of 'Who are you?' and 'Get out of here.'"

To Goforth-Zinn, that incident was a reminder that people in relationships like hers, many of whom don't have such papers handy, can have a hard time with visitation rights in hospitals and the right to make medical decisions for their loved ones.

That's why the Queen Creek couple is in full support of ongoing discussions, in a fledgling stage at this point, about instituting a mutual commitment registry in Mesa. The registry, as envisioned by proponent Denise Heap, chairwoman of the East Valley LGBTQs for Change organization, would allow for hospital visitation rights and the right for a registered individual to be able to make medical decisions for a partner.

The group is pushing now for such a registry in Mesa, but it also plans to expand efforts to other East Valley cities. Heap said her organization chose to approach Mesa first because it would be the "hardest because of the conservative demographics."

At this point, the registry is just in the discussion stage. No policy has been written.

At its Oct. 28 meeting, Mesa's Human Relations Advisory Board is expected to vote on whether there should be an open forum for community members to speak on the issue.

Goforth-Zinn said a registry would be less expensive than the legal document she and her partner had to file. Their powers of attorney and living wills, among other documents, altogether cost them $3,000.

"Why not make that license cheap, as cheap as anyone with a marriage license, so anyone can do it?" said Goforth-Zinn, communications and field coordinator for Equality Arizona a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group.

The registry envisioned by Heap would allow people to register with the city by paying a nominal fee and could be used when they go to the hospital to show that they are in a relationship. It would be modeled after the mutual commitment registry in Salt Lake City, where it's also used by private companies to verify a relationship when offering benefits to domestic partners.

Heap, who also serves on Mesa's human relations board, said her group wants the registry to also include "seniors, straight people, people with family members over 21, anyone."

Goforth-Zinn and Heap say that increasingly, committed relationships or living situations are falling outside the realm of marriage. "It's unfair to not be able to do these things without the benefit you automatically get with marriage," Heap said.

Heap's also interested in initiating a nondiscrimination ordinance in Mesa, which would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

"Taking these steps would make more people feel comfortable buying homes and spending money in Mesa," Heap said.

The discussions, still within the confines of the advisory board and a subcommittee, were prompted by an initial proposal early this year by Councilman Dennis Kavanaugh to explore the option of a domestic partner registry. That idea came after the Phoenix City Council passed such a registry, which has been in effect since February and had 212 registrations as of Tuesday.

Mesa was barraged with e-mails and messages opposed to the registry when Kavanaugh brought it up. He said he still supports that idea and hopes it comes before the City Council. There are areas of medical facilities where only immediate family members are admitted, like ICUs, so that's where a registry helps unmarried couples, gay or straight, he said.

He had proposed calling it a domestic partner registry, but he said he wouldn't mind if it was called "mutual commitment registry," as was done in Salt Lake City, if that makes it more palatable to the community. But he isn't as sure about including the right to make medical decisions, though he says the idea has merit.

"Let's work with what's been accepted by other communities first," Kavanaugh said.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said it's too soon to comment on the issue, but he'd be interested to see what the board comes up with.

"I know there are other registries around, but I'm still wondering if there's a real issue that needs to be addressed and if it's something government needs to solve or individuals can solve it," Smith said.

The issue has support and opposition from the community.

Bryan Jeffries, president of the Mesa United Firefighters Association, said that while the union is not actively behind the Mesa effort, it has a lot of members in such relationships who see value in such a registry.

"It's an issue that has a whole lot of ideological viewpoints come out of it, but when you just look at it practically, it just has to do with medical visitation rights, that's all," Jeffries said. The union had voiced support for the Phoenix registry.

Among those opposed are Carol Soelberg, President of United Families International.

"This 'domestic partner registry' has the legal effect of creating an imitation marriage status for persons who are unwilling to marry or who are ineligible to marry under state law. This ordinance gives some legal recognition to domestic partnerships and cohabitation of the same or opposite sex," Soelberg wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune.

Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International, said her organization conducted an e-mail campaign upon hearing of Kavanaugh's effort. She said her organization would oppose any registry or recognition unless it was simply based on households, not sexual relationships.

"If it were equally open to a mother and daughter or two sisters, we'd be okay, as long as it's not only supportive of sexual relationships, same-sex or man-woman," Slater said.

Kathie Gummere, an attorney who focuses on estate planning, said a health care power of attorney names a person to make medical decisions and gives hospital visitation rights, if it's written that way. But she said a registry would help people because the need for documentation would be lowered somewhat and it would give recognition to the status of the domestic partner.

She also believes it would help to have a statewide registry, rather than piecemeal, so it crosses area boundaries.

In Arizona, in the absence of a power of attorney, medical decisions can be made by - in order of preference - the patient's spouse, unless legally separated, an adult child of the patient, a parent of the patient or, if the patient is unmarried, the patient's domestic partner if no other person has assumed any financial responsibility for the patient.

Rhonda Anderson, pediatric administrator at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa, said the patient's desires always come first. Any official document helps the hospital figure out who has the right to visit and make medical decisions for its patients, especially when patients are not in any condition to make their own decisions.

She said it doesn’t matter if a patient is married.

"The first thing we ask for is if the patient has a medical power of attorney or a living will," Anderson said.

According to Troy Garland, Assistant Director of Nursing at Chandler Regional Medical Center, that hospital's visitation policy generally extends to “anyone who is important to the patient. They are able to visit and participate in their care to the extent that the patient allows.”

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