House votes to maintain safeguards, fends off repeal of Act 39

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Wednesday voted to maintain safeguards in place under the state’s aid-in-dying law after defeating an effort to repeal it entirely.

On a 83 to 60 vote, the chamber defeated an amendment by independent Barre Rep. Paul Poirier to repeal Act 39, which was signed into law in 2013. The law allows terminally ill patients to receive a prescription for lethal medication.

Any patient seeking to take advantage of the law must live in Vermont and have a prognosis 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.

Some provisions, however, are set to expire in July 2016 if the law is not amended. Among those are that a second doctor must concur on the prognosis, and a doctor must tell the patient in person and in writing about the nature of the diagnosis and effects of the lethal medication.

Also set to expire is a requirement that the patient must make two oral requests for the lethal drug at least 15 days apart followed by a written request with two witnesses attesting that it was made voluntarily.

Those protections built into the law are scheduled to expire because two former senators had made that a condition of their support for the law.

The House voted by voice Wednesday, after defeating Poirier’s amendment, to repeal the sunset and maintain the safeguards. The Senate approved the measure last month after fending off similar efforts to repeal the underlying law.

Poirier said Wednesday his objection to the law is philosophical.

“I don’t believe that the state of Vermont, as a government, has the right to take away the life of another human being,” he said on the floor in support of his amendment. “State sponsored end of life measures could lead us to a very, very slippery slope. Where does it end?”

Poirier said the state’s palliative care options have improved. He said all 14 hospitals in the state, as well as the Vermont Veterans Home and most nursing homes, have approved policies disallowing the aid-in-dying option for patients in their care.

“We live in a society where we respect life. We respect life even for those who are suffering,” Poirier said.

Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, was more forceful in her attacks on what she labeled an “incredibly badly written law.”

She said most of the protections originally considered by the Legislature in 2013 were whittled away to secure the support of enough lawmakers to pass it. Among the things tossed aside, she said, were most data gathering and reporting requirements.

“How, today, can we say it’s working as intended?” Donahue said. “We don’t have the information.”

Rep. Sandy Haas, P-Rochester, said the House Human Services Committee amended the Senate version of the bill to require more data gathering and reporting. Under the changes, which the House approved Wednesday, the Department of Health will be able to identify which patients fill prescriptions under the law. And beginning in 2018, it will have to generate a biennial statistical report of information collected.

“We believe that this will increase public confidence that the law is being properly followed,” Haas said.

Donahue further charged that doctors were being shamed into participating in the voluntary program and patients are being bullied into requesting the medication. She also said the law lacks an informed consent provision.

“It is a myth that doctors and other providers do not have to participate in any way if they don’t want to and it is a myth that patients are not being pressured to consider using a prescription,” she said.

Haas, meanwhile, said state law already requires informed consent for all health care decisions so it was not necessary to include it in Act 39. And no complaints have been filed with the attorney general’s office or the Department of Health, she said.

The legislation is up for final approval in the House on Thursday. Additional amendments are expected.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

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