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2014 National Healthcare Decisions Day
By Linda Grear on April 12, 2014

The 2014 National Healthcare Decisions Day is Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Over 100 million American adults have not designated an agent to make medical decisions nor documented the type of medical care they desire. Although it is a difficult issue to address, it is important for all adults to consider who is best-suited to make medical decisions for them the event they become too ill to convey their wishes personally.

Family Health Care Decisions Act: On March 16, 2010, New York passed the Family Health Care Decisions Act. The FHCDA allows family members to make medical decisions, including decisions about the withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, on behalf of patients who have lost their ability to make such decisions and have not prepared advance health care directives (such as a Health Care Proxy or Living Will) if the patient’s wishes can be shown by “clear and convincing evidence”.

Warning: The Family Health Care Decisions Act may give some a false sense of security and belief that written advance health care directives (Health Care Proxy or Living Wills) are not needed. That is not the case.

The legislation established a protocol for health care practitioners to determine whether a patient has decision-making capacity. When it is determined that a patient does not have decision-making capacity, the legislation requires the selection of a ‘surrogate’ from a list of individuals ranked in order of priority, including family members, domestic partners and close friends.

The FHCDA does not solve problems where individuals desire to make very specific medical decisions for themselves based upon their own personal, religious or moral beliefs. Additionally, in family disputes, there may still be issues. For example, if several siblings have differing opinions regarding medical care for a parent, there will be problems to address.

Without advanced written directives for medical care, family members are left in the precarious situation of trying to figure out what to do. The FHCDA clarifies a decision-making hierarchy that may be helpful in emergency situations; however, the FHCDA does not obviate the need for a Health Care Proxy and/or Living Will. Under the statute, the health care surrogate is obligated to make decisions based on clear and convincing evidence of the patient’s wishes. The best way for a patient to express his/her own wishes, avoid family conflicts and select one’s own health care agent is to have a written health care directive (Health Care Proxy and/or Living Will).

The failure to specifically designate an agent to carry out your wishes may create a bitter, lengthy legal battle among family members and doctors in an effort to determine what treatments you would want. If you wish to give someone the ability to refuse treatment on your behalf (such as ventilator assistance, feeding tubes or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), it is important to leave a written document (Health Care Proxy and/or Living Will) giving an agent authority to refuse treatment on your behalf.

Health Care Proxy: A Health Care Proxy is a document which allows you to designate an agent to make health care decisions in the event you are unable to do so. Your health care agent should be a person you trust to be able to carry-out your wishes and deal with your physicians.

Living Will: A Living Will supplements the Health Care Proxy by allowing you to document your wishes concerning treatment under certain instances, such as a terminal illness, or in the event you are in a vegetative state where there is no reasonable likelihood of recovery.

Appointing a health care agent is a good idea even if you are not terminally ill. A health care agent can act on your behalf should you ever become temporarily impaired. For instance, if you are unconscious as a result of a general anesthesia or have become comatose because of an accident, your agent would be able to make any necessary health care decisions on your behalf and could also arrange for the payment of your health care costs.

You are to be commended if you had the foresight to execute a Health Care Proxy; however, be advised that privacy rules have been enacted which could have a serious impact on your designation. On April 13, 2003, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (commonly referred to as “HIPAA”) took effect. These HIPAA regulations apply to virtually every physician, dentist, nurse, and health care provider in the nation. The intention of the HIPAA legislation was to standardize the transmission of health care information and require providers to take “reasonable efforts to limit protected health information to the minimum necessary to accomplish the intended purpose of the use, disclosure or request.”

In other words, if your Health Care Proxy was executed prior to 2003 and disclosure of protected health information is necessary for your treatment, your agent could be denied access to your health or medical information, which would then have an impact upon your agent’s ability to provide care for you. Therefore, it is prudent that you complete a HIPAA authorization or execute an updated Health Care Proxy, which should include the appropriate HIPAA language to authorize your agent to make informed medical decisions as a result of having full access to protected health information.

If you have any questions about the above material, or wish to speak to an Elder Law/Estate Planning attorney, please contact HoganWillig, Attorneys at Law at (716)636-7600 or visit www.hoganwillig.com. HoganWillig’s main office is located at 2410 North Forest Road in Amherst, New York with additional offices in Lockport, Lancaster and Buffalo.

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