MONTPELIER — The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legislation that prevents safeguards in the state’s aid-in-dying law from expiring after fending off a spirited attempt to repeal the 2013 law that allows terminal patients to obtain lethal medication to end their lives.
Under the current law, patients who want to obtain lethal medication must be a Vermont resident and have a terminal diagnosis with a prognosis, according to two doctors, of less than six months to live. A doctor must also find that the patient has the capacity to make the decision to obtain the medication voluntarily. And, the patient must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that the request was made voluntarily.
But those steps, based on a landmark Oregon law, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. That’s because two former senators who did not seek re-election last year — Peter Galbraith of Windham County and Bob Hartwell of Bennington County — insisted those safeguards sunset in exchange for supporting the law.
Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is spearheading the effort to amend the law to ensure those provisions remain. Legislation to do that hit the Senate floor Wednesday and was approved on a voice vote.
“It was our opinion, based on testimony, that safeguards need to be in place,” she said.
Ayer said Attorney General William Sorrell informed her committee that there have been no investigations of abuse or coercion, which the safeguards aim to prevent, because of the law. And the Department of Health reported that the law is working as intended, she said.
Ayer also said family members of patients who have utilized the law — six patients have initiated the process and at least three have taken the lethal medication — support retaining the safeguards.
The safeguards do not expire until next year, but Ayer said she wants the Senate to act now.
“We don’t want to risk it getting caught up … in the end of the biennium swirl next year,” she said.
Voting in favor of keeping the safeguards is not a vote in favor of the law, but “a vote to protect the interests of your constituents.”
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, made a motion to postpone action on the bill until January 2016 to allow lawmakers more time to consider the law’s impact. That motion was rejected on a voice vote.
“This is a painful issue,” Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said. “The pain is not eased in any way by delaying what we’ve set out to do.”
The debate Wednesday was much shorter than the debate in 2013 when the underlying law passed by a thin margin. But there was still passionate debate.
Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who sponsored an amendment Wednesday to repeal the 2013 law, said his wife died a year-and-a-half ago of a painful disease that “eats you alive.” But his wife relied on available palliative care, McAllister said.
“There were days that were very bad, but we worked through those,” he said. “I had to deal with that.”
His amendment failed by a 12 to 18 roll call vote.
McAllister said government should not be involved in how and when people die.
“Seeing what the palliative care is in this state and the comfort they give you and the support they give the families, I don’t think this bill is necessary and I think it sends a real bad message that we’re letting government involved in decisions that need to be personal,” he said.
McAllister also said many doctors in his district are opposed to the law.
Ayer conceded that some doctors are opposed to the law, but they are not forced to write prescriptions if they are opposed, she said.
“A lot of health care providers have a problem with it, that’s why it’s completely voluntary,” Ayer said.
Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, said the 2013 law created a right for Vermonters and repealing the law would be “an extreme act and it ought to be done with the utmost caution.”
“The amendment to repeal the bill undoes an existing right. That is a weighty and unusual step for the Legislature,” he said. “It’s done, but it’s done in extreme circumstances.”
Rutland County Republican Sen. Peg Flory said the state should not be sending a message to residents that it is OK to end your own life.
“I think it’s bad policy when the state tells people that it should be a viable alternative, that some lives you ought to consider ending,” she said.
Flory sponsored another amendment that would prevent doctors who prescribe medications to patients for symptom relief of terminal illness that are then used by a patient to end their lives from facing any criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action. It also sought to repeal the aid-in-dying law. It failed on a 10 to 20 roll call vote.
Lynne Cleveland Vitzthum, who represents the Vermont Center for Independent Living, has played a leading role in the effort to repeal the law. Vitzthum, who has a son with disabilities, said Wednesday following the votes that she expects future challenges to the law.
“It’s certainly not settled for the future. As I’ve said before, this issue is never going to go away,” she said.
The legislation is up for final approval in the Senate Thursday before heading to the House.