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Too Young for a Durable Power of Attorney?

Dr. Cynthia Crawford [i]

My niece is a student at the University of Missouri. Her roommate this past year was a very likable young woman. I found her to be brilliant, beautiful and just plain comfortable to be with. Toward the end of the Fall 2007 semester, Patti (not her real name) started sleeping late and complained that she just didn’t feel well.

She walked out of her last final of the semester on a Wednesday morning and headed to student health with the worst headache she’d had in her 19 years. Within hours, she was in the hospital and diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

By Thursday evening, she was transferred to a health center in one of our larger cities and diagnosed with an aggressive health condition, requiring very specific, swift treatment. Every hour counted. Unfortunately, her medical records weren’t transferred with her and the hospital required the original medical records – faxed records were not acceptable.

Patti’s mother called my niece early Friday morning and desperately asked her to drive the medical records three hours to the health center. The trouble was, however, that the first hospital would not release the medical records to my niece. She did not have durable power of attorney for health care for Patti and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevented them from releasing the medical records, even in this life and death circumstance.

Next, Patti’s mother called the hospital with her “Plan B”. She would get in her car and make the six-hour round-trip drive to pick up the critical medical records. Unfortunately, before long, she learned that the hospital would not release the medical records to her, as she did not have durable power of attorney for health care for Patti. HIPAA’s privacy standards prevented the hospital from releasing her medical records even to her mother, since Patti is a legal adult (age 18 or more).

Unfortunately, you and I can’t change what happened to Patti and her family. What we can do is learn from this family’s nightmarish ordeal.

Anyone age 18 or older needs to execute two legal documents – a durable power of attorney for health care and an advanced directive for health care choices. Don’t wait until you are old. Don’t wait until there is a need for them. Then, it will be too late. And, while you can use a family lawyer to draft these documents for you, you can get these documents in place with little out-of-pocket cost.

An advanced directive for health care choices allows you to express in writing what your health care wishes are if you become physically or mentally unable to communicate your desires for medical care. Advanced directives allow you to state what treatments you do or do not want, if you are unable to communicate your wishes.

A durable power of attorney for health care allows you to appoint another person to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot and you have not specified your wishes in your advanced directive for health care choices. The person you designate with the power of attorney on your behalf should be someone who understands your goals and values and that you can trust to carry out your wishes. Specifically, ensure that the document allows the person to request, receive and review your medical and hospital records.

While I would never suggest to a person how to fill out these two forms – these are very personal decisions – I urge every adult to carefully fill out both forms and then sign and have them notarized. I also encourage you to seek the advice and counsel of an attorney, should you feel uncomfortable doing this without one. (Peace of mind is worth a couple of hundred dollars.)

Admittedly, if these become necessary to use with respect to your care, your Financial Success is relatively meaningless, compared to your health. For most, however, making things easier for those your love and cherish is what Financial Success is all about.

Here are two sources for more information and legal forms: