When Kids Turn 18, Your Role in Their Healthcare Changes

It’s the nightmare scenario for any parent.

Your 18-year-old son is off to college. The campus is about a five-hour drive. Late one night, you get a call from a friend who says your son was in a serious car accident. He’s unconscious in an ambulance and headed to the local hospital. Emergency surgery is probably necessary.

You call the hospital to find out what’s going on. They say that they can’t give you an update on his condition. They can’t even confirm or deny that your son is in the hospital.

You wonder how this is possible. Since the day he was born, you’ve spoken to his doctors. You knew everything about his health. You had a say in his care. He’s still on your health insurance, he still lives at home when he’s not at school, and you still pay the bills.

How can they not tell you what’s going on?

Well, when your son turned 18, he became an adult in the eyes of the law. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which regulates the privacy and security of health information, forbids the release of information about your son’s condition. Because your son is unconscious, he’s unable to grant consent. HIPAA also prevents medical professionals from talking to you to obtain a history or critical information about your child.

If important decisions need to be made, you’ll have to trust the judgment of the doctors at the hospital.

What You Can Do to Prevent This Nightmare

There are two documents that can help. The first is a HIPAA release or authorization form. This document is executed by the child to allow the parents or other designated individual(s) to receive medical information that would otherwise remain confidential according to HIPAA regulations.

The second is a medical power of attorney. Also called a healthcare power of attorney, this legal document allows a designated person to make medical decisions for a patient if they can’t make their own decisions. That person will be the patient’s representative, or agent. A medical power of attorney can also indicate the types of decisions the agent is allowed to make.

For example, if your son is unconscious, sedated with pain medication, or under the influence of drugs, a medical power of attorney would enable you to make decisions on behalf of your son.

A medical power of attorney goes farther than a living will, which only applies when a person is terminally ill, permanently unconscious, in a vegetative state, or in some other end-of-life condition. When you’re temporarily unconscious or unable to communicate, a living will won’t help. You need a medical power of attorney. However, a living will and medical power of attorney are often used together and sometimes combined.

Who Should Execute These Documents?

The scenario explained previously is frighteningly common. Any child who turns 18 should execute a power of attorney and HIPAA release, whether they’re going to college, staying at home, moving out, or enlisting in the military.

Of course, any adult can benefit by having these documents in the hands of someone they trust. Elderly parents, whether they’re in perfect health or suffering from chronic pain or disease, should execute these documents.

For example, suppose an elderly loved one suffers from a sudden stroke, heart attack or a fall and is unable to communicate. Without these documents, how will you be notified? How will you find out about their condition? Who will make decisions on their behalf? How will you know their wishes will be followed? 

If you’re married, part of the marriage contract allows you to receive certain medical information about your spouse, but not all of it. If you’re single and have no medical power of attorney or HIPAA release form, doctors will use their best judgment, but there’s nothing you can do to ensure they’ll follow your wishes or act in your best wishes.

Keep These Documents Accessible and Updated

Fortunately, we live in an age in which all the information we could ever want is never more than an arm’s length away. Keep your HIPAA release form and medical power of attorney on your smartphone as a PDF or even an image or accessible through a cloud-based application. This way, if something happens to your adult child, you can show the documents to the appropriate people, find out what’s going on, and start breathing again.

Finally, these should be living documents. Certain life changes may necessitate changes to the people you designate to receive information and/or make decisions on your behalf. You may also need to update the types of decisions you want them to make.

Don’t wait until something bad happens and you feel powerless. Talk to your attorney about having your adult children or elderly parents execute a HIPAA release or authorization form and a medical power of attorney.

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