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WA lawmakers consider changes to "Death with Dignity Act"

Austin Jenkins/Northwest News Network

Bill sponsors hope to expand the number of terminally ill people eligible to peacefully end their lives.

Washington’s 14-year-old assisted suicide law may get an update. A state House committee is scheduled to vote this week on a bipartisan bill designed to make it easier for terminally ill people to peacefully end their lives.

“This bill has been in development for more than three years,” said Rep. Skyler Rude (R-Walla Walla) at a hearing of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee last week. “It was brought to my attention by a constituent whose family has experienced challenges accessing the law for a terminally ill loved one.”

Washington’s Death with Dignity law took effect in 2009 after voters narrowly approved a ballot measure to authorize it. The Evergreen State was one of the first in the nation to create a process that allows assisted suicide. People diagnosed as having fewer than six months to live can ask their doctors for drugs that would end their lives. But there are safeguards that some view as too onerous and which can delay the process of a hastened death.

For example, the law requires patients who want life-ending drugs to make one written and two oral requests for drugs at least 15 days apart. This bill would shorten that to seven days.

Another change addresses the question of which providers can help patients end their lives. Right now, only physicians have that authority. Rude says a study conducted last year by the University of Washington “confirmed that access to providers is a primary barrier to using the law.”

“The shortage of available and willing clinicians, particularly in rural areas, could be at least partially alleviated by allowing physician assistants and nurse practitioners to become involved,” said Dr. Susan Powell, a volunteer physician for the group End of Life Washington, at a committee hearing last week.

Another change would allow pharmacies to send life-ending drugs to patients through the mail or delivery courier.

“The current prescription and delivery restrictions are a major barrier for the patients living in the many areas of our state where there is no local compounding pharmacy that is willing to participate,” Powell said.

Others testified the current law has made the last days of loved ones bearable, including one of the co-sponsors, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds), who said the law allowed his mother to experience a peaceful death.

Bellingham resident Mary Rifkin, an 85-year-old who lives with Parkinson’s disease, says the law gives her comfort.

“I believe that the proposed changes to the Death with Dignity law will help me plan a sensible departure,” she said.

Opponents of the bill say legal assisted suicide allows families and doctors to take advantage of vulnerable sick people who are prone to making irrational decisions.

“This bill demolishes safeguards that voters asked for,” said Dr. Sharon Quick, the president of the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation. “This bill fails to account for how often the terminally ill have compromised decision-making capacity and depression, both of which often go unrecognized by physicians. This bill is a mistake that patients will pay for with their lives.”

Woodinville primary care physician Dr. Art Coday says the state should be making it harder for people to take their lives.

“In every situation, it is always possible to improve the comfort and wellbeing of patients, even in their last days and hours, and it’s never necessary to take the life of the patient. We can support life to the end, the natural end, and maintain full dignity of patients and make them feel better, physically, mentally and emotionally,” he said.

The bill is scheduled for a vote in the House Health Care and Wellness Committee Friday morning.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.