Monday, April 22, 2013

Protect Health Care; Keep Assisted Suicide Out of Montana

April 22, 2013

I was disturbed to see the (April 7) opinion by Eric Kress promoting physician-assisted suicide. I am a cancer doctor with more than 40 years experience in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal. I am also a professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Oregon Health and Science University.

I first became involved with the assisted-suicide issue shortly before my first wife died of cancer in 1982. We had just made what would be her last visit with her doctor. As we were leaving, he had suggested that she overdose herself on medication. I still remember the look of horror on her face. She said “Ken, he wants me to kill myself.”

In Oregon, the combination of assisted suicide legalization and prioritized medical care based on prognosis has created a danger for my patients on the Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid). First, there is a financial incentive for patients to commit suicide: the plan will cover the cost. Second, the plan will not necessarily cover the cost of treatment due to statistical criteria. For example, patients with cancer are denied treatment if they are determined to have “less than 24 months median survival with treatment” and fit other criteria. Some of these patients, if treated, would however have many years to live, as much as five, 10 or 20 years depending on the type of cancer. This is because there are always some people who beat the odds. The plan will cover the cost of their suicides.

In Oregon, the mere presence of legal assisted-suicide steers patients to suicide even when there is no coverage issue. One of my patients was adamant she would use the law. I convinced her to be treated instead. Twelve years later she is thrilled to be alive.

Don’t make Oregon’s mistake.

Kenneth Stevens, MD,
Sherwood, Ore.