Report Shows More Coloradans Talking to Their Doctors About Medical Aid in Dying; End-of-Life Options Act Implementation Remains on Track
Data and Stories Show That Medical Aid-in-Dying Law Is Giving Coloradans Peace of Mind on 3rd Anniversary Since It Took Effect
Three years after the End-of-Life Options Act went into effect, it is clear that the medical aid-in-dying law is helping some terminally ill Coloradans peacefully end their suffering in accordance with their own values, based on a report released today by the Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) Vital Statistics Program.
The law, passed by 65% of Colorado voters in 2016, authorizes mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they can choose to take to die peacefully if their end-of-life suffering becomes unbearable. The law took effect on Dec. 16, 2016, after its adoption as one of the most popular ballot measures in Colorado history, with over 1.7 million Coloradans voting in favor.
With more than 40 years of combined experience with medical aid in dying in Oregon and the other authorized jurisdictions, Compassion & Choices has seen that implementation takes time. Based on the 2019 report released today by the CDPHE Vital Statistics Program, the number of prescriptions written in Colorado has increased from 2018 by 38%.
In 2019, 170 patients were prescribed medical aid-in-dying medications. Of those, 129 went on to fill their prescription. For many qualified patients, the peace of mind that comes from having a prescription ready to be filled is enough.
James Mulligan and his wife, Alice, moved back to Colorado from Hawai‘i in 2018 when it became clear that Alice’s neurodegenerative illness had no chance of improving.
“There was no hope for her condition,” he said. “We saw about 70 different doctors in varying specialties that might be able to put their finger on what might be causing her condition, but no one could provide answers or treatment to help her.”
“Moving to Colorado, where Alice had lived previously and graduated from the Colorado School of Mines, we were full of hope and expected that medical care in Colorado could take care of Alice,” James added. “It’s fortuitous that medical aid in dying was available here.”
Alice died on her own terms in September of 2019 after taking the medical aid-in-dying prescription.
“We are lucky to have connected with a doctor willing to prescribe. In a sense, he was a lifesaver — his willingness to write the prescription brought immense relief to Alice. She wanted to be in control of her routine and destiny. It was clear that Alice was going to quickly lose control; medical aid in dying gave Alice the control she needed.”
“The report shows the growing progress and acceptance of medical aid in dying among physicians,” said Sam DeWitt, southwest regional campaign & outreach manager for Compassion & Choices.
“Last year, prescriptions were written by 75 unique physicians,” he said. “Over the course of the End-of-Life Options Act, 130 individual doctors have written prescriptions for their terminally ill patients to avoid unwanted suffering. That progress represents many years of outreach and education efforts by Compassion & Choices staff, volunteers and patient advocates.”
“Not every physician who wants to support their patients’ end-of-life wishes can. While we’ve seen improvement in leadership from some facilities and medical systems on this issue of patient-directed care, there are still areas of the state that don’t have ready access to a supportive medical facility. That can really hinder those who want this compassionate end-of-life care option,” DeWitt said.
For those patients who don’t reside on the Front Range, or who are members of communities that are chronically underserved medically, accessing the full array of end-of-life options can be difficult. However, 2019 showed more people from outside the Front Range – 17% – were able to access a prescription. “We know the majority of those who can decide to pursue medical aid in dying are older, white and in the more populated areas of the state. Compassion & Choices is actively working across rural areas to address access and in communities of color with the guidance of our African American and Latino Leadership Councils.”
Similar to previous years, over 60% of those who received a prescription for medical aid in dying had terminal cancer, followed by progressive neurological disorders at 18%, cardiovascular disease at 8%, chronic lower respiratory disease at 5%, interstitial lung disease at 2%, and other terminal illnesses at 5%. The 129 prescriptions were filled by 33 unique pharmacists.
A total of nine states have authorized medical aid in dying: California, Colorado, Hawai‘i, Maine, Montana (via state Supreme Court ruling), New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C. Collectively, these 10 jurisdictions represent one out of five U.S. residents (22%) and have decades of combined experience successfully implementing this medical practice.