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AUSTIN—Families that disagree with a hospital's decision to withdraw life-sustaining treatment from a gravely ill patient would have up to 45 days to find a different hospital or health care facility under a bill approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

Current law provides only 10 days, which author and Mineola Sen. Bryan Hughes says isn't enough time to find a new facility.

"Everyone, I think, agrees: That is not long enough," he said. "Many times these folks are at the end of their lives, and so their families, rather than spending time in communing with them, praying with them and enjoying their company, instead their families are fighting feverishly to keep them alive, calling hospitals, calling doctors, trying to find someone who will take their loved one and allow them to pass away naturally."

The process in which life-sustaining care is terminated is defined under the 1999 Texas Advance Directive Act. It begins when a treating physician determines that further life-sustaining treatment is inappropriate and unlikely to result in treatment goals.

If the patient's family disagrees with the physician, the question is put before a hospital ethics board to consider the physician's decision. If the board agrees with the doctor, the family has 10 days to find another hospital or other facility that will continue care. Hughes said it's among the shortest such time constraint of any state in the nation. He said his bill would move Texas to the middle ground in relation to other state statutes regarding this question.

Cases where hospitals and families are in disagreement over this issue, aren't very common, Hughes said.

"Most hospitals and doctors in Texas are not taking advantage of this law," he said. "We are blessed with wonderful hospitals filled with caring people, physicians, nurses, all kinds of professionals unfortunately, because of holes in the law, there are a few places where these cases continue to arise."

In those instances where the hospital and family or the patient's advanced directive disagree, the bill would require that life-sustaining treatment continue for 45 days.

As it came out of committee, the bill required that treatment be provided indefinitely, but Hughes couldn't garner enough support to move the measure with that provision. He reached a compromise limit of 45 days.

"Of all the cases we're aware of 45 days would be long enough to transfer each one of those people or for them to die a natural death," he said. "These families aren't expecting miracles, but they don't want their loved ones' deaths to be hastened by the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment."

An amendment added by Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio would require that hospitals develop written policies ensuring that hospital boards are free of conflicts of interest when deciding these cases.

Additionally, it would prohibit these boards from considering any permanent physical or mental disability the patient may have or allow that to factor into the decision in order "to ensure that the life of a disabled person is not discredited in any way," Lucio said. The bill, SB 2089, now heads to the House for consideration.

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