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What Is A Healthcare Power of Attorney?


A Healthcare Power of Attorney is a legal document in which you designate someone (known as your "agent" or "proxy") to make medical decisions on your behalf.

The Proxy only has authority to make medical decisions for you if you become unable to communicate your own decisions to others. This may be due to lack of consciousness as when you are in a coma, or it could be due to mental inability to make or communicate such decisions. Once you regain the ability to communicate, you also regain the power to make your own decisions.

Some states do not require a Healthcare Power of Attorney to be in writing. However, it is advisable to always put a Healthcare Power of Attorney in writing. Proving oral discussions is difficult, particularly if the testimony is contested. Proving a conversation happened, and what was said during it, can also cost time and money at a time when you can’t afford to waste either.

Provisions In A Healthcare Power Of Attorney

Within the limits of power stated in the document, your Healthcare Power of Attorney has the power to do whatever he or she believes is in your best interests. While it is obviously your desire that your Healthcare Power of Attorney make decisions based on what the Proxy believes you would decide for yourself, there generally is no such requirement in the document. Care should be taken in determining which person to appoint as your Proxy. 

Generally, a Healthcare Power of Attorney is written very broadly so that your proxy has complete decision-making authority regarding medical decisions. This can include authority to:

  • Accept or reject any proposed treatment or procedure, including the use or withholding or life support and other decisions which are not covered in a Living Will.
  • Obligate you to pay for medical expenses that may arise from your medical care.
  • Admit you into (as well as release you from) a hospital, nursing home or other in-patient medical facility.
  • Hire and release medical and other medical support or social worker personnel to assist in your care.
  • Contact any doctor or other medical provider, or health care facility and discuss all issues surrounding your medical condition.
  • Deal with Medicare, public benefits such as Medicaid, and private insurance companies.
  • Access your medical records to the same extent that you can if you wanted to look at your medical records yourself.
  • The power to grant a release or waiver on your behalf if a health care facility or health care provider asks for a waiver or release from liability.

In most states, a Healthcare Proxy is not allowed to:

  • Authorize involuntary psychiatric care.
  • Authorize sterilization.
  • Refuse pain relief medication or other items for your physical comfort.
  • Require a doctor to do anything that, in the doctor's own mind, is not in your best interest.

NOTE: In those states that do not provide such protections you can write them into your appointment document.

Finances: A Healthcare Power of Attorney does not give the Proxy any authority with respect to financial matters (escept to incur costs for your treatment).. If you want someone to handle your financial affairs when you cannot, consider executing a Durable Power Of Attorney For Finances. If you have deaings with Social Security, you can appoint someone to be able to represent you with respect to Social Security, see Representative Payees 101.

Duration: Generally, a proxy's authority only starts when two physicians, including the physician of record, certify that you are not capable of understanding or communicating decisions about your health. Your Proxy will have power as long as this condition lasts.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney stays in effect as long as you live unless you terminate or modify it.  You can modify or terminate it at any time.

Who To Appoint As Proxy and alternate: Choose with care. For tips about how to do that, click here.

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