Advocates Hopeful for Improvements to Washington’s Death With Dignity Act

February 22, 2023

Advocates with Compassion & Choices Action Network and End of Life Washington are hopeful for change after Senate Bill 5179 was successfully voted out of the Senate Health & Long-Term Care Committee (6-4); supporters are looking forward to a full Senate vote any day. This legislation includes modest revisions to Washington’s Death With Dignity Act, removing roadblocks that prevent many terminally ill individuals from accessing medical aid in dying, especially those who live in medically underserved communities. A companion bill,  House Bill 1281, has been heard by the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, and is now waiting for a vote.

“The bipartisan support for HB 1281 and SB 6179 is consistent with what we’ve learned over 13 years of supporting clients as they legally access medical aid-in-dying,” said End of Life Washington Executive Director Judy Kinney. “Core safeguards should be maintained and we must protect access to medical aid-in-dying to reflect the current changes made in medicine  and to reduce unnecessary suffering. This legislation offers our terminally ill neighbors and family members more autonomy and peace in the final days and weeks of their lives.”

These bills would allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses and Physician Assistants to act as either the attending or consulting medical provider for individuals who want to access the Death with Dignity Act. A physician would still have to be one of the other providers in either case, but this greatly reduces barriers to access for many areas of the state which lack comprehensive access to end-of-life care.

Each of the hearings included powerful testimony from healthcare providers, family members of loved ones who have encountered barriers in accessing the bill, and Washingtonians who want an improved option for themselves at the end of their lives.

“We are all beyond disappointed with the inequities in the law across the state, and the realities of healthcare in restricted, rural, and eastern Washington,” said End of Life Washington Client Services Manager Cassandra Sutherland.

These bills would not change the eligibility requirements under the existing law. Individuals must still be mentally capable adults with six months or less to live, must make the request on their own behalf, must be educated by their physician on all other end-of-life care options, may be allowed to withdraw their request or decide not to use the medication and must be able to self-ingest the medication. Medical aid in dying does not allow for the administration by intravenous or other parenteral injection (below the skin) or infusion (insertion into the vein), which are explicitly prohibited by any person, including the doctor, family member or patient themselves.

Additionally, this legislation would reduce the waiting period from the individual’s first and second oral request for the medication from 15 days to 7 days, and allow the attending and consulting providers to waive the waiting period if the terminally ill individual’s death is imminent. Finally, the bill would modernize the rules around how and when individuals can obtain their aid in dying prescription from a pharmacy, allowing electronic prescribing and medications to be shipped instead of picked up in person.

“We are grateful to see such incredible bipartisan support for both of these bills and are honored that so many advocates shared their voices in both of these hearings,” says Callie Riley, Northwest Regional Advocacy Manager at Compassion & Choices Action Network. “This legislation will ensure that – no matter their zip code –  terminally ill Washingtonians are able to access the Death With Dignity Act at the end of their lives, with trusted healthcare providers and loved ones by their side.”

The Washington Death with Dignity Act was approved by Washington voters in 2008 and took effect in 2009. In thirteen years of use in Washington and a combined decades of implementation in other states, there have been no documented instances of abuse or coercion associated with medical aid in dying. In 2022, similar legislation passed the Washington House, 58-37, but did not advance through the Senate. Advocates are waiting for next steps on both of these bills.

End of Life Washington is recognized nationally for its advocacy of choice for the terminally ill. We uphold Washingtonians’ right to the full range of end of life choices, including Death with Dignity, through advocacy, education, and support. For more information, visit endoflifewa.org.

The Compassion & Choices Action Network is a national 501(C)4 organization devoted to authorizing and defending policies that improve care and expand options at the end of life. 

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VICTORY: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the improved End-of-Life Options Act.

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