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News of the Day ... In Perspective

09/21/2006

Disability rights groups challenge Texas “futile-care law”

If it had been up to her doctors, Kalilah Roberson-Reese would be dead by now.

Instead, the 29-year-old brain-injured woman is sitting upright in a chair and responding to familiar voices, after transfer to a nursing home.

Texas is one of two states that permits hospitals to give families a transfer-or-perish deadline. A hospital can withdraw “life support” in patients with no hope of recovery, after allowing families 10 days to find a facility that will accept the patient in transfer. Virginia, the other state with such a law, allows 14 days.

Garnet Coleman, the legislator who coauthored the Texas Advance Directives Act, said that “ethically, a physician should not be forced to do harm to a patient by continuing treatment.”

Jerri Ward, an Austin attorney who has authored several lawsuits to prevent doctors from ending treatment, said that “this law allows doctors and hospitals to abandon patients and provides them a safe harbor and immunity to do it.” In his view, medicine has changed its focus from saving lives to allowing doctors to make subjective quality-of-life decisions about who should die.”

William Winslade, a lawyer specializing in medical ethics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said that “there are situations where it’s no longer medically appropriate to continue procedures that have no therapeutic benefit other than to prolong organic life” [emphasis added].

Disability-rights advocates suspect that hospitals often act on financial motives.

More than a dozen cases like Roberson-Reese’s have surfaced, prompting lawmakers to hold hearings. Proposed amendments include lengthening the deadline and introducing independent mediators in cases in which hospital and families disagree (Howard Witt, Chicago Tribune 9/17/06).

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