Md. lawmakers hear lessons learned on Death with Dignity

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Ahead of the next debate on death with dignity, a panel of Maryland lawmakers on Tuesday heard from experts and health care professionals from states that already have the law.

Sharing lessons learned and concerns, witnesses from Oregon and Vermont addressed a joint legislative work group of Maryland delegates and state senators.

The Maryland General Assembly is set to hear its own version — the End of Life Option Act — when the session reconvenes next year.

Since Oregon’s law took effect in 1997, fewer than 1,000 people have chosen to end their lives this way. Right-to-die legislation is back in the news this week as California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill Monday that allows physician-assisted deaths.

Cancer patients have been by far the most common to use the prescription, followed by those with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Almost all had insurance, according to Ann Jackson, the former director of the Oregon Hospice Association.

“It had been predicted that those people who lacked insurance or other financial resources would be more likely to use the law because they could see no other way out,” she told the work group.

Additionally, almost three in four were college educated, countering the suspicion that less-educated people would use the law out of the belief that they would have less access to alternatives.

Some health care professionals from Vermont raised serious concerns with death with dignity.

“I might warn you that this is not a slippery slope,” said Lynne Caulfield, and executive board member on the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare.

“This is a free fall, and once you jump off the cliff it will be very difficult to go back,” she told the panel.

Rachel DiSanto, a doctor at North Country Hospital and Health Center, says she believes the debate distracts from quality end-of-life care.

“The data on death with dignity thus far seems to indicate that we still have a long way to go with hospice care but that excellent hospice care does actually make a difference,” she said.

In D.C., council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3, introduced a death with dignity bill in January. It hasn’t come up for a vote in the full council.

There is no such proposed legislation in Virginia.

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