DC patients unable to use aid-in-dying law as paperwork jams

April 6, 2018

The following news piece appeared on WUSA9.com on April 6, 2018:

It’s been 14 months since DC passed a law to allow terminally ill patients to take their own lives — and not a single patient has been able to use it.

Frustrated patients complain regulators have tied up doctors in bureaucratic knots. “I can’t get the prescription,” said Mary Klein, who has gone through dozens of rounds of chemo for her ovarian cancer, and has finally given up on treatment. “I don’t know how long I have to live,” said the artist and former journalist. “I would like to use medical aid in dying in the last days of my life.”

Klein had thought her doctors would help. But she says that didn’t work out. “Two physicians who I thought were on board then said they were not.”

The advocacy group Compassion and Choices says of the 11 people who’ve asked about medical aid in dying since DC legalized it, not a single one has been able to get a prescription. “We have people calling us on a regular basis expressing frustration. It’s telling us we have to do something different,” said Compassion and Choices CEO Kim Callinan.

Advocates blame the DC Health Department’s requirement that doctors fill out a form and register on the department’s website before writing an end-of-life prescription. The Health Department calls it a streamlined process, but activists say no other jurisdiction that’s approved medical aid-in-dying requires doctors to register beforehand.

But Ed Shanbacker, of the DC Medical Society, said he thinks patients’ difficulty finding prescribers may have more to do with doctors’ ambivalence about helping their patients die than about the paperwork. The Medical Society failed to agree on a position while the bill was before the DC Council, and ended up neither recommending or disapproving of it.

Councilmember Mary Cheh, the driving force behind the DC law, said the Health Department needs to do more outreach and education to doctors about medical aid-in-dying. She said the Health Department budget included more than $100,000 for outreach, and she’s not sure how or if the department spent it.

As for Mary Klein, she said that when the suffering becomes unbearable, she wants to be able to choose when to die, peacefully, at home, with her loved ones nearby.”I’m dying. I’m going to die of this cancer. It’s not suicide. Its the cancer that’s killing me.”

A Health Department spokesman says two doctors in the city have registered for the Death with Dignity program. But because of privacy rules, there is no way for Mary Klein to find out who they are.

Compassion & Choices
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Patricia A. González-Portillo
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