Health concerns are at the forefront for many people right now. I heard a news story on the radio recently about an emergency room doctor who woke up in a cold sweat thinking about how long it had been since he updated his will. His panic is understandable. The COVID-19 coronavirus is highly infectious. Previously healthy people end up in intensive care. Despite the best precautions, there are health care professionals, police and first responders, grocery and pharmacy employees, and others who will get sick because of the work they do to keep the rest of us healthy and safe.
The emergency room doctor’s panic reflects a loss of control. People are buying up food and supplies in the grocery stores for the same reason. People want to plan ahead and exercise some control over their health and security. The silver lining in this public health crisis is that people are finding ways to make generous donations of their time and skills to provide some measure of security, comfort, and control to those who are most at risk. People are using sewing machines in their homes to make masks and gowns. Large companies are donating cleaning supplies.
Since the founding of Keystone Elder Law P.C. ten years ago, we have always prioritized public service and education. We recognize that we are part of an inter-connected system of professionals that includes the dedicated caregivers for vulnerable patients in nursing homes, personal care homes, and in-home care settings. While they risk their own health in service of the community, we want to do what we can for them.
At least for the next month we are encouraging anyone serving on the front lines of this health crisis to contact us for a free health care power of attorney and living will. This is an essential part of a complete estate plan. Although the Governor granted a waiver that deems Keystone Elder Law P.C. an essential business, we are working remotely as much as possible to protect the safety our clients and staff. If you contact me at Patrick@KeystoneElderLaw.com, I will communicate with you by phone and email to prepare a health care power of attorney and living will that sets forth your wishes in the event that you become too sick to communicate with your doctor about medical treatment decisions.
A health care power of attorney serves two purposes. It is your right to decide what medical treatment you will receive. If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the health care power of attorney allows you to name a trusted person to serve as your agent. The health care agent will be authorized to speak with your doctor, weigh the benefits and risks of a proposed treatment, and make medical decisions on your behalf. The health care power of attorney also allows you to provide specific guidance to your agent about how you would like to be treated when you can no longer speak for yourself.
When it comes to estate planning, people procrastinate for many reasons. The public health emergency has reminded people that estate planning is not only about distributing your property after your death. A complete estate plan prepares for incapacity that may happen during your life. If you do not have a health care power of attorney, Pennsylvania law allows for someone to be appointed as your “health care representative.” Without planning, a representative may make decisions for you without knowing your values, religious beliefs, or positions on issues such as organ donation.
A health care power of attorney must be signed by you in the presence of two witnesses who are at least 18 years of age. Ideally your pandemic planning would include the drafting of a will or a trust and a durable financial power of attorney. Unlike the health care power of attorney, those documents are required under Pennsylvania law to be notarized in person.
We are monitoring pending legislation which would allow notaries to act electronically through such communication technologies as Zoom, FaceTime, or GoToMeeting. Until that legislation becomes enacted, we can only prepare the health care power of attorney remotely. Please visit Keystone Elder Law’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/KeystoneElderLaw/ and YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/KeystoneElderLaw for regular updates. Given the heightened risk of hospitalization, everyone should ensure that they have named a health care agent and provided instructions regarding treatment and life-sustaining measures.
Surely you have neighbors going to work every day in a hospital, nursing home, pharmacy, or grocery store. Maybe your neighbors include police or corrections officers. Working in those settings can be stressful enough without the added panic that comes with a highly contagious and powerful virus. Continue to work the sewing machine and gather the medical and cleaning supplies. Find ways to support our at-risk neighbors. And let them know that they can exercise control over their medical treatment by preparing a health care power of attorney and living will. As we each use our skill sets and resources to support our neighbors in need, we enhance our security as a community, reduce panic, and ensure that we will emerge stronger from this emergency.
Patrick Cawley, Attorney