A law, called the New York health care proxy law, allows you to appoint someone you trust - for example, a family member or close friend - to decide about treatment if you lose the ability to decide for yourself. You can do this by using a Health Care Proxy to appoint your "health care agent."

You can give the person you select as little or as much authority as you want. You can allow your health care agent to decide about all health care or only about certain treatments. You may also give your agent instructions that he or she has to follow. You agent can then make sure that health care professionals follow your wishes and can decide how your wishes apply as your medical condition changes. Hospitals, doctors and other health care providers must follow your agent's decisions as if they were your own.

Why should I choose a health care agent?

If you become too sick to make health care decisions, someone else must decide for you. Health care professionals often look to family members for guidance. But family members are not allowed to decide to stop treatment, even when they believe that is what you would choose or what is best for you under the circumstances.

Appointing an agent lets you control your medical treatment by:

  • allowing your agent to stop treatment when he or she decides that is what you would want or what is best for you under the circumstances;
     
  • choosing one family member to decide about treatment because you think that person would make the best decisions or because you want to avoid conflict or confusion about who should decide;
     
  • and, choosing someone outside your family to decide about treatment because no one in your family is available or because you prefer that someone other than a family member decide about hour health care.

How can I appoint a health care agent?

All competent adults can appoint a health care agent by signing a form called a Health Care Proxy. You don't need a lawyer, just two adult witnesses.

When would my health care agent begin to make treatment decisions for me?

Your health care agent would begin to make treatment decisions after doctors decide that you are not able to make health care decisions. As long as you are able to make treatment decisions for yourself, you will have the right to do so.

What decisions can my health care agent make?

Unless you limit your health care agent's authority, your agent will be able to make any treatment decision that you could have made if you were able to decide for yourself. Your agent can agree that you should receive treatment, choose among different treatments, and decide what treatments should not be provided, in accord with your wishes and interests. If your health care agent is not aware of your wishes about artificial nutrition and hydration (nourishment and water provided by feeding tubes), he or she will not be able to make decisions about these measures. Artificial nutrition and hydration are used in many circumstances, and are often used to continue the life of patients who are in a permanent coma.

How can I give my agent written instructions?

See Instruction for Filling Out a Health Care Proxy.

How will my health care agent make decisions?

You can write instruction on the proxy form. Your agent must follow your oral and written instructions, as well as your moral and religious beliefs. If your agent does not know your wishes or beliefs, your agent is legally required to act in your best interest.

Who will pay attention to my agent?

All hospitals, doctors and other health care facilities are legally required to obey decisions by your agent. If a hospital objects to some treatment options (such as removing a certain treatment) they must tell you or your agent IN ADVANCE.

What if my health care agent is not available when decisions must be made?

You can appoint an alternate agent to decide for you if your health care agent is not available or able to act when decisions must be made. Otherwise, health care providers will make treatment decisions for you that follow instructions you gave while you were still able to do so. Any instructions that you write on your Health Care Proxy form will guide health care providers under these circumstances.

What if I change my mind?

It is easy to cancel the proxy, to change the person you have chosen as your health care agent, or to change any treatment instructions you have written on your Health Care Proxy form. Just fill out a new form. In addition, you can require that the Health Care Proxy expire on a certain date or if certain events occur. Otherwise, the Health Care Proxy will be valid indefinitely. If you choose your spouse as your health care agent and you get divorced or legally separated, the proxy is automatically cancelled.

Can my health care agent be legally liable for decisions made on my behalf?

No. Your health care agent will now be liable for treatment decisions made in good faith on your behalf. Also, he or she cannot be held liable for costs of your care, just because he or she is your agent.

Is a health care proxy the same as a living will?

No. A living will is a document that provides specific instructions about health care treatment. It is generally used to declare wishes to refuse life-sustaining treatment under certain circumstances. In contrast, the health care proxy allows you to choose someone you trust to make treatment decisions on your behalf. Unlike a living will, a health care proxy does not require that you know in advance all the decisions that may arise. Instead, your health care agent can interpret your wishes as medical circumstances change and can make decisions you could not have known would have to be made. The health care proxy is just as useful for decisions to receive treatment as it is for decisions to stop treatment. If you complete a Health Care Proxy form, but also have a living will, the living will provides instructions for your health care agent, and will guide his or her decisions.

Where should I keep the proxy form after it is signed?

Give a copy to your agent, your doctor and any other family members or close friends you want. You can also keep a copy in your wallet or purse, or with other important papers. The Healthcare Association of New York State and the New York Chapter of the Society of Patient Representatives have developed a wallet-size version of the Health Care Proxy that enables you to carry this with you at all times.

Does completing the wallet-size version mean that I don't have to fill out a full-size Health Care Proxy form?

The wallet-size version of the Health Care Proxy form is an abbreviated version of the full-size Health Care Proxy form. This card is intended to be carried with you; you should still complete a full-size version of the proxy form and give copies to your agent, your doctor, your attorney, and any other family members or close friends you choose.

APPOINTING A HEALTH CARE AGENT IS A SERIOUS DECISION. MAKE SURE YOU TALK ABOUT IT WITH YOUR FAMILY, CLOSE FRIENDS, AND YOUR DOCTOR.

DO IT IN ADVANCE, NOT JUST WHEN YOU ARE PLANNING TO ENTER THE HOSPITAL.

FILLING OUT A HEALTH CARE PROXY IS VOLUNTARY, NO ONE CAN REQUIRE YOU TO DO SO.

I want to print out a Health Care Proxy Form!

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