Ithaca Journal: Senate passes health care proxy bill

Thomas K. Duane

March 03, 2010


ALBANY -- Senators approved a bill this week that sets up a legal mechanism for designating a surrogate to act on an incapacitated person's behalf, legislation supporters say is long overdue and will reduce additional stress placed on friends and families during crises.

Passage of the bill is a "monumental achievement that should be celebrated by all New Yorkers," Gov. David Paterson said in a statement. He pledged to sign the legislation, which was previously approved by the Assembly.

Eighty percent of people don't have a health care proxy, so who makes decisions for an incapacitated person and how they are made have been ambiguous in New York, said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.

Her husband, Thomas Cousins, died in November 2007, weeks after having a cancerous tumor removed from his kidney. The cancer had metasticized, Stewart Cousins said.

Stewart-Cousins said her husband was never able to speak again after the operation. If he hadn't signed a health care proxy before going into surgery, the situation could have been more traumatic and difficult, said the senator, who was his proxy.

"I'm sure families have struggled with this and come up against this wall many times in the past," she said.

The so-called Family Health Care Decisions Act passed, 55-3, on Wedneday in the Senate.

It was first introduced in the Legislature 17 years ago, said Senate Health Committee Chairman Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan. More than 100 organizations support it.

Without this legislation, the state has followed common law, which prevents withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment "unless clear and convincing evidence can be produced to show that the individual would have declined treatment if competent," according to the governor.

Each year, about 70,000 New Yorkers suffer a catastrophic health crisis and have no directive regarding their medical treatment, Donna Liberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. Missouri is the only other state that doesn't have laws or procedures governing health care and end-of-life decisions for people who are incapacitated due to illness, she said.

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