April 16, 2013 is “National Healthcare Decisions Day.” It is a day set aside to educate the public about the importance of health care planning. This is to encourage people to express their personal wishes regarding healthcare, in writing, before a health care crisis occurs.
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 in the event they become too ill speak for themselves and convey their own wishes.
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 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 during 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 health care agent would be able to make medical decisions on your behalf.
Family Health Care Decisions Act: On March 16, 2010, NYS Governor David Paterson signed the Family Health Care Decisions Act (“FHCDA”) into law. The FHCDA may permit family members to make medical decisions, including decisions about the withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, for patients who have lost their ability to make medical decisions and who had not previously prepared a Health Care Proxy or Living Will. However, the law may give some a false sense of security and belief that written a Health Care Proxy or Living Will is not needed. That is not the case.
The law established a protocol for doctors to determine whether a patient has decision-making capacity. When it is determined that a patient does not have decision-making capacity, the law 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 will 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, but, it does not obviate the need for a Health Care Proxy and/or Living Will. Also, under the FHCDA 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 Proxy and/or Living Will.
If you have any questions about this information, 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.