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Washington's Death with Dignity Act may get an update

The bill has already passed the Senate and is now working its way through the state House.

Washington’s 14-year-old Death with Dignity Act may get a revision. That’s the law that allows terminally ill people with less than six months to live to ask their doctors for life-ending drugs.

Last week, the state Senate approved a version that includes several changes. It allows pharmacies to send life-ending drugs to patients through certified mail or delivery courier. It shortens the waiting period between a patient’s first and second requests for drugs from 15 days to seven.

And it allows physician assistants and nurse practitioners, in addition to MDs, to prescribe those drugs. That’s something Darrell Owens says is long overdue. Owens is a doctor of nursing practice at the University of Washington. He is also the founder, clinic chief and director of the UW Outpatient Primary, Palliative and Supportive Care Program.

“We are already allowed by law to serve as the attending of record for hospice patients. We admit hospice patients to the hospital. We sign do-not-resuscitate orders and death certificates and we prescribe opioids," Owens said. "So you can imagine the confusion experienced by my patients and my physician colleagues when they find out that, despite these abilities, myself and other nurse practitioners are unable to assist their patients if they wish to exercise their right to utilize death with dignity.”

Others don’t see it that say. Some doctors believe that only they have the expertise needed to determine when someone should be prescribed life-ending drugs. Jonathan Clemens, a physician assistant in Thurston County, agrees.

“PA education standards specify classroom instruction in palliative and end-of-life care and death, dying and loss, but nothing on patient decision making capacity, nothing on intractable suffering, nothing on how long a patient will live. None of these topics are mandatory in PA students’ clinical training and our board exams do not cover these topics," he said. "The majority of PAs have no exposure to end-of-life decision making beyond a single classroom lecture.”

Other opponents of the bill, including Conrad Reynoldson, say people with disabilities are sometimes pressured to consider ending their lives early. Reynoldson says his own experience with a disability has convinced him that changing the law would be dangerous.

ESSB 5179 is a bill that is being rushed through despite the fact that every disability rights organization that has taken a position is opposed and none were consulted for input," he said.

The House Health Care Committee has already approved a similar bill. It is scheduled to vote on this version on Friday.

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.