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More Than a Go-Bag: Legal Emergency Preparedness

By: Gina L. Campanella, Esq., FACHE

Superstorm Sandy was a significant wake up call for the tristate area with regard to emergency planning, particularly for emergencies that require evacuation for a long period of time and significant financial damages.  There are several government resources to assist individuals and families in formulating and integrating a comprehensive disaster plan.  Some examples of these applicable to New York and New Jersey residents include FEMA’s www.ready.gov, New Jersey’s http://www.state.nj.us/njoem/plan/, and New York City’s https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/em/downloads/pdf/myemergencyplan_english.pdf.  All of these are excellent resources for putting together a plan, articulating that plan for the entire family and gathering the necessary documents and resources for a comprehensive “go bag” – a common term used to describe a sturdy, easy to transport, backpack or other type of bag which contains all of one’s short-term necessities in the event of a mandatory evacuation due to an emergency.

Each of these government organizations recommends collating copies and/or originals of one’s important documents in the event of an evacuation.  While documents such as licenses, photo identification, birth certificates, marriage certificates and copies of insurance and credit cards are widely recognized as essential documents, many emergency preparedness directives fail to include two critical documents that everyone should have accessible in the event the emergency results in personal injury and hospitalization.  It is not uncommon for an unexpected emergency to result in casualty and hospitalization of individuals who may not have ID or medical records with them.  It is also not uncommon for such individuals to be unable to communicate on their own.  HIPAA and other privacy laws prohibit hospitals, physicians, and medical facilities from communicating with an adult patient’s family and friends without either a waiver of HIPAA due to the emergency or appropriate authorization documents.  It can take too long for the government to decide to waive HIPAA and retrieval of such documents can be impossible if homes or safe deposit boxes cannot be accessed.

In an emergency, every minute counts.  An essential but often overlooked element of emergency preparedness is advanced health care planning and planning in the event of temporary incapacitation due to an emergency.  Advance Directives, Living Wills and Powers of Attorney are all necessary elements of disaster planning.  An Advance Directive and/or Living Will spells out who hospitals can speak to about a patient’s condition and give clear guidance on how to proceed with that patient’s care.  All families should have such a document in their “go bag” for adult members of the household and those who live alone should provide a copy to whomever they designate as their health care proxy.  Families also often fail to appreciate prior to an emergency that a Power of Attorney may also become necessary.  Such a document will allow a spouse, parents or children to access accounts to pay expenses or bills they ordinarily would be unable to access or pay in the event the account holder is unable to do so him or herself.

Emergency preparedness is more than just a bag of credit cards and medications.  It must also include planning for temporary injury or incapacitation as a result of the immediate emergency.

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