Saturday, May 18, 2013

Not what Vermont needs

May 17, 2013

By Rep.
Anne Donahue
Wake up, Dorothy. You’re not in Oregon anymore.

The final week of the political path to death with dignity in Vermont was a reminder of how a cadre of politicians can want something so desperately that they push it through even if abandoning key promises.

For months — no, for years — Vermonters have been told that Oregon’s experience of physician-assisted suicide has demonstrated that extending this compassionate option to persons who want it comes at no risk to the vulnerable.

The mantra has been Oregon. Oregon protections. Oregon data. Everything has worked flawlessly in Oregon, so if we follow the exact model as Oregon, we can ignore the fears of the naysayers.

When the Senate was short one vote in February to pass the Oregon model, it sent a narrow bill to the House that focused instead on independent actions of a patient rather than on prescriptions for intentionally lethal medication. It was roundly criticized for lacking the protections of the Oregon bill.

The House restored the Oregon, active-prescription version. Proponents were emphatic on the House floor that it was because every one of the Oregon protections were locked into place that members could be assured there could be no coercion, no errors in diagnosis, and no one making the choice lacking full informed consent.

When it pingponged back, the Senate still couldn’t muster the votes to pass it. So a few backers patched and pasted an assorted set of new and old language together directed exclusively at gaining the one extra vote needed.

Gone were both the Oregon model and any model that left the doctor out of the role of prescribing lethal drugs. Enter the land of political Oz.

Sen. Claire Ayer, who had been the most vigorous in attacking what the Senate had passed via a floor amendment in February, now pressed for the new hybrid, though acknowledging that it was drafted “on the fly.”

Eradicated by the Senate were fully 29 separate protective provisions that the House had required in its Oregon version, some of them small, some of them huge. Among the huge ones:

— There is no longer any written informed consent required.

— A guardian or an agent for an advance directive is no longer barred from taking the place of a direct patient request.

— There is no longer any requirement that the patient actually be able to “self-administer.”

— There is no longer a second opinion required to assess whether a patient has the rational judgment capacity to make an informed decision.

— There are no requirements for follow-up by the Department of Health. The required review of patient files is gone. The requirement to collect statistical data and publish annual reports is gone.

This last is particularly ironic, because it has been the patient information and report data from Oregon that has been the basis for assuring Vermonters that all is well in Oregon.

The new Vermont bill sunsets even the “Oregon-lite” approach in 2016, then eliminates all remaining structural protections. But there isn’t any data being required to assess how the process works in those first three years.

Despite all this, House members who wanted to see a bill pass stuck by what they had so strongly criticized before: a bill that no longer maintained many of the long-promised protections. Only a few looked twice and voted against accepting what the Senate had done. The winning vote margin dropped from 17 to 10.

Our radical new social policy that endorses having doctors write prescriptions that will kill their patients, cobbled together by just a few individuals from bits and pieces of language drafted on the fly, was passed by two votes in the Senate and 10 votes in the House.

But no, Dorothy. We’re no longer in Oregon.

Rep. Anne Donahue, a Republican from Northfield, is a member of the House Human Services Committee, which passed the Oregon-style bill on a 7-4 vote in April. She was an opponent.