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(NECN: Jack Thurston, Montpelier, V.T.) - "I am honored to sign this bill today," Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-V.T., said Monday as he sat down to authorize Vermont's new end-of-life choices law. "This bill does not compel anyone to do anything they do not choose in sound mind to do."
Terminally ill patients who are already in their final days can now ask their doctors for lethal drugs to speed up their deaths. The state of Vermont will require a second doctor's opinion that patients are near death, proof the patients are of sound mind, and will require patients to ask multiple times for lethal drugs. Those safeguards are based on the state of Oregon's handling of its first-in-the-nation aid-in-dying law.
While Vermont's law took effect immediately upon Gov. Shumlin's signing, many in Vermont's medical community have said they're approaching implementation of the measure very slowly and very cautiously.
"I think the implications need to be studied," said Dr. Phil Brown, the vice president for medical affairs at Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin.
Brown told NECN his facility will spend the summer consulting with lawyers and ethics committees to help doctors understand legal ramifications of the new law. Brown explained some questions he hopes to have answered include understanding exactly who's considered mentally capable to ask for the deadly doses, and how it'll work if physicians choose to opt out of writing that requested prescription.
"We just want to make sure our physicians are doing the right thing and that they have the information to make the right choices here," Brown added.
Opponents of the law fear it will open the floodgates to elder abuse and send a message that Vermont is a state that doesn't value life.
"I think it's a sad day," said Mary Hahn Beerworth of the Vt. Right to Life Committee. "The only thing that's historic today is that the Governor, the Speaker of the House, and [chair of the V.T. Senate Health and Welfare Committee] Senator Claire Ayer colluded to commit legislative malpractice."
Another group opposing the legislation is True Dignity Vermont, which calls itself a watchdog organization. It has launched a toll-free hotline at 1-855-787-5455, asking Vermonters to report suspected cases of patients being pressured or influenced into taking lethal doses of drugs.
However, the law's thrilled backers insist no pressure will ever be levied on dying patients. Instead, supporters say, the law will give the handful of Vermonters predicted to take the step each year peace of mind that they'll have the right to choose when to end their pain and suffering on their terms. Only Vermont patients may utilize the law, according to a press release from Gov. Shumlin's office.
"Vermonters who face terminal illness and are in excruciating pain at the end of their lives now have control over their destinies," Shumlin said. "This is the right thing to do."
Dr. Harry Chen, the commissioner of the Vermont Health Dept., told NECN after the bill-signing that he expects insurance companies to handle covering the costs of the lethal drugs as they would for any other health care request. He also said he expects physician-aided deaths will not negatively affect a patient's life insurance claims, explaining the legislation aimed to define physician-aided death as medically very different than earlier-in-life forms of suicide, which can nullify some benefits.
"As it is, the people who'll use this are very close to death already," Chen added.
Vermont is the fourth state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medications to patients, but the first to do so by actions of the state legislature. Oregon passed its 1997 law by referendum; Washington state followed suit in 2006; and a court order in Montana made it legal in that state, the Associated Press reported last week.