5 On Your Side

Parents may not have control during medical emergency unless child fills out paperwork

Posted November 1, 2017 11:45 a.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 9:55 a.m. EDT

— Parents with college-aged children and even high schoolers who have turned 18 may not have a say in their care in the event of a medical emergency.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) privacy laws mean once a child is legally considered an adult, a parent will not have a say in their care unless action is taken beforehand.

A set of forms can give doctors and nurses permission to share an adult child’s medical information with parents in the event of an emergency. Otherwise, HIPPA says that once a child is legally an adult, parents have no more right to their child’s medical information than a stranger.

“It doesn’t even matter whether your child is still on your health insurance or if you’re paying the bills,” said Consumer Reports Money editor Donna Rosato.

Forrest Allen’s parents faced a struggle after he was critically injured in a snowboarding accident six years ago. He was hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit, but because he was 18, doctors were deemed to be his care providers instead of his parents.

Allen’s parents had to go to court to get legal guardianship so they could make medical decisions for their son, who was a high school senior at the time.

“While he was still in a coma, we had to hire an attorney, come back to our county, appear in court, have essentially a mini-trial,” Allen’s mother, Rae Stone, said. “The court appointed guardian had to read him this document that said ‘do you have any objection to giving up your legal rights to vote or drive or to own property? That’s a terrible thing to hear. He couldn’t understand it, but he couldn’t object.”

There are three signed forms all parents need to be able to make medical decisions for their child in the event of an emergency:

  • A HIPPA authorization that allows healthcare providers to share information with parents
  • A medical power of attorney that lets the child name a parent as the person authorized to make necessary decisions
  • A durable power of attorney allowing a child to name their parents as the people authorized to handle their financial affairs

The forms are basically the equivalent of having a child sign a permission slip to eliminate ambiguity in the event of an emergency.

“Some hospitals and college medical centers have their own forms, so if you know where your child is likely to get health care, you might want to reach out to them in advance and ask,” Rosato said.

Allen has had dozens of surgeries since his accident, including one in September to remove hardware that doctors had put in his skill. He’s walking, talking, singing and performing in theater. Last week, he wrote his first post in a blog his family has been keeping about his recovery.