A Health Care Proxy allows a family member, friend, or other trusted individual to make important health care decisions on one’s behalf when that person is not physically or mentally able to do so on his or her own. The medical power of attorney, or agent, is instructed to follow the wishes expressed in the document (or as expressed separately in an accompanying document known as a Living Will) when making decisions on behalf of the principal. Crucial medical decisions, such as whether one should receive life sustaining support after a major accident, or whether a particular medical procedure should be undertaken, can be made by a person’s agent. Many times, a seriously ill or injured person is unable to adequately convey his or her wishes to the treating physician, whether because of mental incompetence or because of physical limitations, such as a coma.
The consequences of a failure to have a health care proxy can be catastrophic. In the well-known case of Terri Schiavo several years ago, the failure to implement this basic document resulted in enormous financial expense and heartache for Ms. Schiavo’s family members. Ms. Schiavo suffered a massive heart attack, and was ultimately reduced to a persistent vegetative state resulting from the accompanying brain damage. Over the next decade and a half, Ms. Schiavo’s husband and her parents battled over whether Ms. Schiavo wanted to be kept alive via artificial means. Her husband claimed that she did not, while her parents said that she did. Because there was no medical power of attorney appointing either her husband or her parents to convey Ms. Schiavo’s wishes, the family members spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the matter in the courts, with Ms. Schiavo eventually being removed from life support in 2005.
A properly prepared health care proxy also includes a waiver for the strict privacy laws surrounding patients’ medical information (known as a HIPAA waiver), allowing the agent to access the principal’s confidential medical history. As many people have encountered when attempting to assist in health care decision making on behalf of a loved one, medical professionals will refuse to speak with third parties absent such a waiver. It is important that clients review these documents every five or so years. Often, medical professionals are reluctant to speak with the agent named in a health care proxy where the document is old or outdated, for fear that the principal who created the document may have changed his or her mind since the time the document was originally created.
Please contact our office to inquire about whether a medical power of attorney is right for your circumstances by calling the Rhode Island Health Care Proxy Attorneys at The Law Office of Howe and Garside, Ltd.