By Colin A. Young
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Ahead of next week’s public hearing on physician-assisted dying, advocates for people with disabilities urged lawmakers to consider the impacts such a law could have on vulnerable populations that are poorly served by health providers.
“I’ve been told to my face and through countless movies that if people become paralyzed like me they want to die,” John Kelly, who has been paralyzed below his shoulders since he was 25 and uses a power wheelchair he drives with his mouth, said. “I don’t want to see the state taking a position that supports this.”
Kelly, the New England regional director for the advocacy group Not Dead Yet, described a “broad attack on disabled people” in America and said proposals to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses help perpetuate a “better dead than disabled” meme in society.
Kelly and others who spoke at a briefing hosted by Somerville Rep. Denise Provost said they are concerned that endorsing physician-assisted dying could encourage people with a disability or depression to think seriously about ending their lives, that they could be coerced into requesting a fatal prescription, and that insurers will see it as a cheaper alternative to health care.
“Assisted suicide is so dangerous because, unfortunately, it’s cheaper to kill us than to have us live,” Anita Cameron, Not Dead Yet’s director of minority outreach, said. “We want help to live, not help to die.”
Kelly said disability advocacy groups in Oregon, which legalized doctor-prescribed fatal doses in 1997, have reported that some insurance companies have told patients that their recommended treatment is not covered by their insurance, though assisted death is.
“With assisted suicide, it instantly becomes the cheapest treatment,” he said.
Compassion & Choices Massachusetts has filed a suit in Suffolk Superior Court asking the Massachusetts courts to affirm the right to medical aid in dying — sometimes known as “death with dignity” or “doctor-assisted suicide” — and is working to pass legislation here. The bill it supports would protect vulnerable populations, officials say.
“This legislation contains a number of safeguards to protect terminally ill patients based on 40 years of combined state experience with medical aid in dying,” Marie Manis, Massachusetts campaign manager for Compassion & Choices, said in a statement. “In the six states (Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, California and Colorado) that have authorized this option, there has never been a single case of abuse or coercion.”
Last year, the head of Disability Rights Oregon told Compassion & Choices in a letter that the organization has “not received a complaint of exploitation or coercion of an individual with disabilities in the use of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.”
The Joint Committee on Public Health’s public hearing on Sept. 26 will be devoted to the issue, with only one piece of legislation on the agenda for that day — H 1194/S 1225 filed by Rep. Louis Kafka and Sen. Barbara L’Italien.
The Kafka/L’Italien bill lays out a series of requirements that must be met before a patient can receive a lethal dose of medication. The patient must have a terminal illness reasonably judged to result in death in six months and must make the request themselves, first orally and again in writing at least 15 days later. The patient must also have two people, including one non-relative who does not work for the health care facility involved, witness the written request.
The bill also requires patients to meet with a counselor to determine if they are suffering from psychiatric or psychological conditions that may affect their judgment. And a physician cannot issue a prescription for a lethal dose without first “offering the qualified patient an opportunity to rescind the request for medication.”
Supporters and opponents disagree over public support for aid in dying policies.
Compassion & Choices Massachusetts points to a 2014 poll conducted by Purple Strategies that found 70 percent of Massachusetts voters support medical aid in dying as an option for terminally ill adults. But Not Dead Yet points to a 2013 national poll conducted by Pew Research Center that reported 49 percent of Americans disapprove of medically-prescribed fatal doses while 47 percent approve.
Massachusetts voters spoke directly to the issue in 2012, when they rejected a ballot question similar to the bill filed by Kafka and L’Italien with 51 percent opposed and 49 percent in favor, a margin of 67,891 votes.
Kafka has filed similar legislation in each of the last four sessions, but his bills never got out of committee. Earlier this year, Kafka told the News Service that his bills have picked up support each session.
“So, I’m hoping anyway, that this next session we may be able to move it beyond just the committee level,” he said.