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Now 12 percent of U.S. adults can seek aid-in-dying medication prescriptions, though advocates hope to increase that number by onboarding more medical systems to their cause.
While the California End of Life Option Act took effect Thursday, enabling 12 percent of U.S. adults to seek medical aid in dying, the process of integrating the service into state physicians’ standards of care is ongoing.
Championed by Brittany Maynard, who in 2014 moved from California to Oregon—the first state to pass an end of life law in 1997—to legally obtain aid-in-dying medication, the policy is her legacy.
Now Denver-based nonprofit Compassion & Choices is assuming Maynard’s mantle, six months ago launching a statewide, bilingual campaign to educate the doctors, the terminally ill, and their friends and families on the benefits of aid in dying.
“But the long an important task of ensuring access continues on,” said Matt Whitaker, California state director for Compassion & Choices, on a Wednesday conference call.
Compassion & Choices and its 1,400 volunteers are providing medical centers, hospice facilities, community health centers and nonprofits with video resources walking them through the end-of-life process.
Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest, medical director at Stanford Health Care - Los Altos and a family physician for 24 years, said she’s met with hundreds of patients asking for more information about aid-in-dying medication in recent months.
So long as patients are mentally capable and terminally ill, having six months or less to live, they qualify for the medication. But it’s doctors’ job to assess every patient’s mental capacity and offer alternatives before asking if they want a prescription.
Maynard passed away from a tumor peacefully in the arms of her husband Dan Diaz, rather than succumbing to “uncontrollable pain and suffering,” he said.
“She sacrificed what should’ve been her own quiet time so that she could help others in her predicament,” Diaz said.
About 70 percent of Californians supported the legislation, which will give 52-year-old Sacramento single mother Elizabeth Wallner the chance to talk to her physician about procuring an aid-in-dying prescription—if and when the time comes.
Wallner has Stage 4, terminal colon cancer that spread to her liver and lungs. In March 2011, she was told she had 18 months to live.
But Wallner has had six surgeries removing parts of her liver and colon, on top of 18 weeks of chemotherapy, and continues to care for her aging parents. She has yet to ask her doctor for aid-in-dying meds because “death itself doesn’t scare” her, “going slowly and painfully” does.
“Just because I have this option does not mean my life will end tomorrow,” Wallner said. “Taking the prescription is my choice.”
Three other states passed medical aid in dying: Washington in 2008, Montana in 2009 and Vermont in 2013. For more information on the end-of-life option from Compassion & Choices go here.
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive's Route Fifty.
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