The Vermont Senate is expected to give final approval on Tuesday to changes to the state’s 2013 medical suicide law to make it more accessible for terminally ill patients to get a prescription to hasten their deaths.
On Friday, Sen. Ruth Hardy asked senators to pass the measure in memory of former House lawmaker and majority leader Willem Jewett, who died on Jan. 12 at age 58 with the help of the law he helped to pass. Days before he died, Jewett advocated for changes to make it easier for terminally ill patients to navigate the law and get a prescription.
The modifications, which the Senate gave preliminary approval to on Friday, would allow terminally ill patients to use telemedicine in addition to an in-person visit to make the request for a prescription if the physician determines that it’s clinically appropriate; do away with the 48 hours before a physician writes a prescription; and provides immunity to participants, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists who acted in good faith compliance with the law.
“Many patients and their family members have reported that the law and process have provided them with comfort and control during an extremely difficult time. However, over the almost nine years since it’s inception, several provisions have been identified that are unclear or overly onerous for people during their final stages of their life,” Hardy, vice chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee told the full Senate.
A total of 11 states now have similar laws. Since May of 2013 to June of 2021, 116 Vermonters have taken advantage of Act 39, according to the Health Department, she said.
The patient still must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart for a prescription and the bill makes clear that the prescribing physician must determine that a patient has a terminal condition based on medical records and a doctor’s physical examination of the patient, Hardy said.
The Vermont Right to Life to Committee is opposed to the 2013 law, and the proposed changes, said executive director Mary Beerworth.
“The underline concern has always been that someone could be forced into hastening the end of their life to make it convenient for someone else,” she said on Monday.
“A telehealth call for something as serious? How do we determine if an elderly person is being coerced into asking for the drugs?” she said.
Hardy said the changes are modest but important and the law still requires “the strict 15-step process” for prescribing medicine to hasten death. There have been no verified complaints about the law in its nine years, she said.