Coloradans already inquiring about new medical aid in dying law; could take effect by end of month

December 7, 2016

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post on December 7, 2016

Coloradans with terminal illness soon can begin making written requests for life-ending prescriptions under the state’s new aid-in-dying law, and authors of the law say multiple people already have inquired.

“I fully expect people to begin requesting prescriptions on the first day that the law is effective,” said Kat West, national director of policy and programs for Compassion & Choices, which ran the end-of-life options campaign in Colorado.

The law, approved by about two-thirds of voters Nov. 8, goes into effect as soon as the secretary of state’s office certifies the election results and Gov. John Hickenlooper signs off on the new law, expected between now and the end of December.

Compassion & Choices, the nation’s largest nonprofit focused on end-of-life care, has helped pass medical-aid-in-dying laws in five other states. The group announced Wednesday that it is launching a bilingual education campaign for Colorado patients and medical professionals, including two statewide hotlines that physicians and pharmacists can call for confidential consultation with other professionals. The pharmacy hotline will offer assistance in finding pharmacies that offer the life-ending medication, whether secobarbital or some other less expensive combination of drugs.

The terminally ill person must self-administer the medication by drinking about 4 ounces of liquid. Usually the person falls asleep within minutes and dies in one to two hours, said Holly Armstrong, spokeswoman for Compassion & Choices.

The nonprofit also is creating a team of 25 doctors, nurses, social workers and psychiatrists who will travel Colorado and offer webinars to educate hospitals, hospices and doctors’ offices on the new law. So far, about a dozen medical professionals have been trained and will volunteer to provide the peer education, West said.

Dr. David Grube, medical director for Compassion & Choices and who has written prescriptions under Oregon’s 22-year-old “death-with-dignity” law, also will consult with Colorado physicians seeking advice. Educational videos in English and Spanish are posted on the organization’s website.

Terminally ill patients must fill out a request form, now available on the Compassion & Choices website. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will keep the form, along with an attending-physician form, and track the number of people who seek to use the law.

Doctors do not have to participate in the law, but “we are hoping that every physician will provide accurate, nonjudgmental, compassionate information” to their patients, West said. Compassion & Choices plans to keep track of hospital, hospice and other medical office policies on the aid-in-dying law, and will put a “find care” tool on its website so people can search by ZIP code to locate medical professionals participating in the law.

A Colorado Medical Society survey of its membership earlier this year found that 56 percent of doctors were in favor of medical aid in dying, while 35 percent were opposed or “strongly” opposed. Some doctors have said they will not write prescriptions under the law, and hospitals with religious affiliation could decline to participate.

Among those grateful for the “peace of mind” the law brings is Matt Larson, a Denver attorney diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015 at age 35. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Larson is in remission, although doctors say there is a 50 percent chance the cancer will return. He hopes to “beat the odds,” but if faced with an “agonizing and painful death,” Larson prefers to have the option of dying on his own terms.

“Medical aid in dying has become a very personal issue for my wife and me and my entire family,” he said.

Compassion & Choices is making the launch campaign bilingual to reach Colorado’s growing Latino community, which is more likely to wait to discuss death and dying “until the very end,” West said.

The campaign encouraged people to ask their doctors how they would respond to a medical-aid-in-dying request, and said doctors should prepare themselves for those conversations. “If they wait until the first patient asks about it, it’s too late,” West said.

The hotline for doctors is 800-247-7429. For pharmacist consultation, call 503-943-6517.

Compassion & Choices
Media Contacts

Sean Crowley
Media Relations Director
[email protected]

Patricia A. González-Portillo
National Latino Media Director
[email protected]
(323) 819 0310

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