As you approach the later stages of your life, you may be concerned about the possibility of becoming incapacitated either temporarily or permanently. Many people want to ensure that they receive life-sustaining care if they are unable to express their own wishes, while others want to be able to die with dignity when the time comes. In addition to a living will, a health care power of attorney can help you make sure that your wishes are honored if you are unable to express them. This instrument allows you to name someone to be your health care agent and transmit your medical wishes to health care providers. In some states, this person may be called a health care proxy or an attorney-in-fact for health care, but their responsibilities are essentially the same.
When you are choosing someone for this role, your first priority is making sure that you name someone whom you trust to carry out your wishes, even if they may not agree with them. Your health care agent also should be physically present when the time comes to make these decisions and should have a basic understanding of your medical condition and potential treatments. They should have the strength of character to resist bullying by family members or doctors who disagree with your wishes. Your health care agent cannot be your doctor, since this could create a conflict of interest between your wishes and their medical judgment.
Additional Responsibilities of Health Care Agents
Sometimes a health care power of attorney will provide more extensive authority to a health care agent. It may allow them to hire or fire doctors, decide whether you should be admitted to a nursing home, get access to your medical records, and go to court over a medical professional’s failure to honor your wishes. They also may have the right to visit you in a health care facility when ordinary visitors could not. If you decide to change or revoke any of their responsibilities, you can change your health care power of attorney at any time, assuming that you are of sound mind.
Finalizing a Health Care Power of Attorney
A health care agent may access medical and mental health records in compliance with HIPAA.
You must take certain steps to make sure that this instrument is valid and enforceable after you have chosen your health care agent and defined the scope of their authority. You must sign the document to show that you understand it and confirm that it expresses your true wishes. (People who are not physically capable of signing a document can have another person sign it on their behalf.)
Also, your state likely will require you to have a notary public, witnesses, or both present when you are signing the health care power of attorney or having it signed. This provides additional confirmation that you were of sound mind at the time that the document went into effect. You should provide copies of your health care power of attorney to your doctors and the offices of health care facilities where you often receive treatment, as well as anyone else who should know about your medical wishes. You should also give your health care agent a copy and make sure that they can find the original version if needed.