Vermont Senate approves amended death bill

Thursday February 14, 2013

MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to an amended bill allowing doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients.

But even some backers of the measure, which passed 21-9, called the amended version a travesty. And other long-time backers of what they call "death with dignity" or "end-of-life choices," along with opponents of physician-assisted suicide, were so angry about the amendment that they voted against it.

"I will be voting yes for this bill, as much as I detest it," said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

She said she hoped much of the original language -- which mirrored Oregon’s first-in-the-nation Death With Dignity Act -- would be restored when the measure moves to the House.

"I want to be on that conference committee," Ayer said, referring to the six-member panel of lawmakers who work out the differences between the House and Senate bills after they have cleared both chambers.

But there could more machinations before it gets to that stage: Senate rules allow a motion for reconsideration on Thursday. If one of the yes votes that produced a 15-15 tie and triggered Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s tie-breaking vote in favor of the amendment were to change, Scott’s vote would be canceled and the amendment would fail 16-14. In that case, the underlying bill would be revived.

The underlying bill contained a series of safeguards: A dying patient requesting lethal medication had to make the request three times, one of them in writing; two doctors had to agree on a prognosis of less than six months to live; and the patient had to be mentally competent.

The amendment that replaced the underlying bill was shorter and focused on stipulating that doctors who provided lethal medications to terminally ill patients could not be charged with a crime, sued or be subject to professional discipline by the state Board of Medical Practice.

The amendment drew support from critics of the underlying bill, who complained that it set up a state process sanctioning suicide. Under the amendment, a doctor would provide the prescription with a warning that taking too much of the drug would be lethal. Which drugs would be used would be decided by the Board of Medical Practice. Both supporters and critics of the amendment described that exchange between the doctor and patient as a "wink-wink."

Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, who co-sponsored the amendment with Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, defended it in Senate debate, saying it met many of the objectives of both sides.

Galbraith said it enhanced choices for terminally ill patients while addressing a key criticism that the measure not lead to state-sanctioned suicide.

During the discussion, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a supporter of the amendment, fought to control his emotions while describing the death of his mother. Benning said she spent her final months in an apartment above his Lyndonville law office, where he slept and used a monitor to respond immediately if she needed him.

On the day of her death, he was on the porch of his office with his brother. He said a hospice worker came down to say they should go see their mother immediately. Moments later, she died, possibly of a morphine overdose, he said.

"I know there was a large bottle of morphine in that room," he said. "Four people had access to it, including my sister, who was medically trained." He argued that the amendment would protect anyone on the scene from prosecution, which is what his mother would want. "My mother would scream, ‘How dare you prosecute my loved ones?"’ the senator said.

Ayer was far from the only one expressing disappointment with Wednesday’s outcome.

Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices at End of Life-Vermont, the principal outside group lobbying for the underlying bill, said the amendment "radically changes both the intention and the practical outcome of the End of Life Choice bill. It strips all of the carefully crafted and well-tested safeguards from the bill and instead gives physicians full immunity when prescribing lethal doses of medication."

He said the group would work for changes as the measure continues through the legislative process.


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