Efforts Surge Around New York, New Mexico and Washington Legislation
Compassion & Choices and Compassion & Choices Action Network have created videos, placed ads and organized rallies to promote pending bills in each state.
by Sonja Aliesch
January 27, 2021
Undeterred by the enduring pandemic, Compassion & Choices and Compassion & Choices Action Network (CCAN) entered the 2021 legislative session with strong initiatives from coast to coast.
In New York, we debuted a 30-second television ad this month featuring two New Yorkers — well-known advocate Dr. Jeff Gardere and Jennifer Milich, a terminally ill Buffalo resident — urging the Legislature to pass the state’s Medical Aid in Dying Act. That same day, Compassion & Choices kicked off the campaign to “Stop Needless Suffering. Pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act” with a virtual rally. More than 150 people attended the event, including supporters, President and CEO Kim Callinan, and legislators.
“The right to peacefully end intolerable suffering at life’s inevitable end should not be determined by your city or your ZIP code,” said Senator Diane Savino, lead Senate sponsor, at the rally. “Terminally ill New Yorkers should have the same option of medical aid in dying to avoid needless suffering at the end of their lives as their neighbors across the George Washington Bridge or the Lake Champlain Bridge.” Assemblymember and nurse Phara Souffrant Forrest of Brooklyn said, “I support this bill. It is a beautiful bill. For me, the most important thing I can do for my patient is to ensure they maintain dignity at all times, and making sure they have the ability to have their lives conclude on their terms.”
During the rally, a powerful video produced by Compassion & Choices featuring Jennifer Milich and Assemblymember Karines Reyes, also a nurse, was shown. In the four-and-a-half minute video, Milich said that over the past year, the only relief from her constant suffering was spending time with her family, watching Buffalo Bills games and enjoying nature. But now, as her suffering has become unbearable, she wants the option of medical aid in dying so she can die peacefully: “There comes a time when enough is enough,” Milich says. Reyes, who spent time on the front lines helping fight COVID-19 at Montefiore Einstein Hospital in the Bronx, is a supporter and sponsor of New York’s Medical Aid in Dying Act, which will be reintroduced in both houses — with increased sponsorship — in the coming weeks.
The previous week, on the first day of the 2021 legislative session, Kim Callinan submitted written testimony, and CCAN launched two emotional videos with New Mexico advocates Jorge Otero and Maya Distasio pleading with state legislators to authorize medical aid in dying by passing the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act (HB 47). Before the committee vote, Jorge Otero, a software engineer from Albuquerque, and Maya, testified in support of the bill. He shared the agonizing death of his father Pablo and how he pleaded for the option of medical aid in dying.
This compassionate legislation is especially important to Distasio, whose 77-year-old grandfather died alone from self-inflicted knife wounds because he could no longer tolerate the pain from acute myeloid leukemia. In the video, She shares this painful story and talks about the importance of New Mexico authorizing medical aid in dying so no other state residents have to suffer needlessly as her grandfather did.
“This compassionate end-of-life option is a matter of personal freedom and dignity for terminally ill New Mexicans,” said Representative Debbie Armstrong, the bill’s author. “New Mexicans should have the ability to decide on what is right for them. No one should be forced to suffer as they die.”
In Washington state, CCAN and End of Life Washington urged members of the Washington House Committee on Health Care and Wellness to approve HB1141, the Improving Access to Death with Dignity Act, including testimony from Kim Callinan. The bipartisan bill, while keeping intact the same basic eligibility requirements and core safeguards, seeks to ensure eligible terminally ill adults can access the law as intended, The improvements are based on evidence and data from authorized states, many of which are already in practice.
These improvements include following Oregon’s lead in clarifying the law to allow for e-prescribing. In the vast majority of the other states, e-prescribing and mail delivery have always been allowed. Also, like Oregon has done, the Washington bill would reduce the waiting period from 15 days to 72 hours, and allow the attending and consulting providers to waive the waiting period if the terminally ill individual’s death is imminent. As it stands, data from authorized states has conclusively shown that at least one-third of people die suffering, never able to access the law.
The proposed amendment would also allow advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) and physician assistants (PAs) 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.
“This year, the COVID-19 public health emergency brought about a deeper understanding of the tragedy of loved ones suffering at life’s end, and the limits of modern medicine to fully relieve that suffering,” said Kim Callinan. “It also reinforced the need to modernize Washington’s Death with Dignity Law to better reflect the current practice of medicine so that eligible Washington residents do not unnecessarily suffer.”
Read Compassion & Choices’ 2019-2020 Election Report to learn about how constituents and lawmakers nationwide responded to last year’s legislative session.