New Law Gives Rights to Patients’ Families

New York Governor David Paterson has signed into law the Family Health Care Decisions Act, legislation that enables a patient’s family member – including his or her domestic partner – to make health care decisions when the patient is not able to do so.

“This law has been 17 years in the making, so this signing is momentous,” said Dr. Patricia Bomba, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield vice president and medical director for geriatrics. Bomba has worked for years to see this law enacted.

Each year, about 75,000 people die in New York without a health care proxy and lacking the capacity to make their own health care decisions.

New York had been one of the few states that prohibited family members from making health care decisions for incapacitated loved ones. No one – not even a concerned family member – had the right to make decisions about medical treatment for patients who lacked capacity, unless the patient had signed a health care proxy or left clear and convincing evidence of his or her treatment wishes.

As a result, some incapacitated patients were denied appropriate palliative treatment that improved quality of life and reduced suffering, while others were subjected to burdensome, highly invasive treatment that potentially violated their wishes and prolonged their suffering.

The Family Health Care Decisions Act allows family members and others who are closest to the patient to act as surrogates and make decisions regarding medical treatment for a loved one in certain limited situations.

“The new law includes safeguards to ensure that decisions are made consistent with the patient’s wishes and best interests,” added Bomba.

The Family Health Care Decisions Act does not eliminate the need to have advance care directives on file with doctors, attorneys and family members, including a health care proxy, a New York State Living Will and Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (also known as MOLST).