Death with Dignity in Vermont: A History

Vermont’s Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act resulted from a 10-year campaign in which the Death with Dignity National Center (and Political Fund) worked in close collaboration with our local partner, Patient Choices Vermont, founded by Dick and Ginny Walters. We built on the legacy of unsuccessful bills, H.335 in 1995, H.109 in 1997, and H.493 in 1999.

2002

From August to October, a series of phone calls between Oregon Death with Dignity, the Death with Dignity National Center’s predecessor organization, and Dick Walters, founder of Patient Choices Vermont, a group committed to passing a Death with Dignity law in Vermont, launched the campaign effort. Oregon Death with Dignity was involved from the beginning, providing written political strategy and participating in many phone calls with Dick’s group in order to build a successful campaign.

In December, staff from Oregon Death with Dignity traveled to Vermont to work with the fledging Vermont group, share the Oregon experience, and meet with key stakeholders.

2003

The two organizations developed a strategic plan and raised funds for the Vermont Death with Dignity campaign.

In February, 38 of 150 Vermont House members and 8 of 30 Senate members introduced S.112/H.318, Vermont Death with Dignity Act.

2004

S.112/H.318 were both tabled in both the Vermont House and Senate.

In October, the Death with Dignity National Center sponsored a symposium at the University of Vermont to educate state legislators on the efficacy of the Oregon law. Presenters included experts from Oregon: the head of the state’s hospice organization Ann Jackson, a rabbi, and a statistical expert.

In November, our staff traveled to Vermont to discuss strategy with our local allies.

In December the Legislative Council published a positive report on the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

2005

Representatives Malcolm Severance, William Aswad and David Zuckerman introduced House Bill 168, the Vermont Death with Dignity Act, hoping it would proceed to the full House for debate before session ended in May 2006. Compelling testimony in favor of Death with Dignity legislation was presented at hearings held by the House Human Services Committee. As a result, a subcommittee worked to mark up the bill in anticipation of reviewing it with the full committee when the legislature reconvened in January 2006. However, the bill failed to get out of committee.

2006

The US Supreme Court decision in January affirming the Oregon Death with Dignity Act had positive impact on the Vermont effort. Together with our local allies, Death with Dignity National Center developed an action plan with the goal of a favorable House vote by the end of 2007 and a favorable Senate vote by the end of 2008.

2007

In January a Death with Dignity bill was submitted in the House as H.44 and in the Senate as S.63. The House bill moved out of Committee but was ultimately defeated on the House floor by a vote of 82 to 63.

2009

S.144, An Act Relating to Patient Choice and Control at End of Life, was introduced in the Vermont Senate in early April. The same bill was introduced in the Vermont House as H.455. Neither bill succeeds.

In June, the Death with Dignity National Center became fiscal agent for Patient Choices Vermont. We continued to provide political strategy via regular conference calls. A few months later the partnership was reaffirmed with our pledge to raise $100,000 to support the Vermont effort, including a successful $40,000 in 40 days campaign that provided support at a critical time.

2010

In the fall, the Death with Dignity National Center began providing additional outreach support through electronic communications such as blog posts, email, and social media. Through May 2013 we served as an experienced partner in our leadership role in the Death with Dignity movement. We continued to provide political and legal expertise and advice. Eli Stutsman, JD, author of the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts, worked as a consultant to the Vermont effort. In addition, we actively fundraised for the campaign.

While on the campaign trail, gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin spoke in favor of Death with Dignity. His advocacy bolstered support for the issue throughout the state and encouraged his colleagues in both legislative chambers to be more vocal in their own support.

2011

Death with Dignity returned to the Vermont legislature, as H.274 and S.103. Neither advanced.

Death with Dignity National Center Executive Director, Peg Sandeen, repeatedly traveled to Vermont to meet with Governor Shumlin, legislators, and lobbyists. We coordinated the travel of Oregon and Washington advocates to speak at public educational forums around Vermont which featured public events, press, radio, and TV interviews and media coverage.

Our then-board president, Steve Telfer, joined Patient Choices Vermont’s team in the statehouse to meet Vermont lawmakers with the goal of building momentum in the Vermont Legislature.

2012

The Vermont Death with Dignity bill was blocked from a full vote and died in Committee. However, Death with Dignity received an open debate on Vermont’s Senate floor for the first time.

In the lead up to his re-election in 2012, Governor Shumlin took the unprecedented step of making the legislation part of his campaign platform (shortly after his re-election, he told reporters signing the Death with Dignity bill was one of four social issues he saw as a priority during his second term).

2013

In January, Senate Bill 77, An Act Relating to Patient Choice and Control at End of Life, was introduced in the Senate and heard in the Health and Welfare Committee.

The legislature, both the Senate and the House, passed the bill on May 13, making Vermont the first state to pass a Death with Dignity law through the legislative process. Governor Peter Shumlin signed Act 39, Patient Choice and Control at End of Life, into law on May 20.

2014

Anne Vachon became the first Vermonter to use the new Act 39.

Vermont Death with Dignity Statute Confirmed

The original Act 39, Patient Choices and Control at the End of Life, contained a provision sunsetting certain patient-protection safeguards on July 1, 2016. The sunset was added during the original debate in 2013 so backers could get enough votes for passage; the sunset affected a requirement for a psychiatric evaluation if there is any indication a patient requesting lethal medication has impaired judgment and a 15-day waiting period between a patient’s first and second request for the medication.

In the 2015 session, the Vermont legislature considered S.108, a bill that would remove those sunsets, thus making the safeguards permanent.

Following hearings in February, In March, the Senate gave S.108 preliminary approval. A number of Representatives attempted to repeal the entire Act 39 in the House, but failed 83 to 60. The Vermont House approved S.108 on April 29, but because the Representatives amended the bill with a reporting clause, the Senate had to approve the new version. Governor Peter Shumlin signed S.108 on May 20, solidifying the Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act exactly two years after signing it.

On October 16, 2015 Dick Walters died using the very law he advocated for. On February 16, 2016 the Vermont House passed HCR 233, a resolution expressing condolences to the Walters family on Dick’s death.

Death with Dignity National Center’s Contributions to Patient Choices Vermont’s Effort

Death with Dignity National Center served as fiscal agent for Patient Choices Vermont in support of their educational efforts. We raised and donated over $200,000 directly to Patient Choices Vermont to fund their educational efforts, constituent outreach, and town forums.

From the beginning in 2002, our family of organizations was directly involved as a full partner with Patient Choices Vermont. We provided leadership, political strategy, and a historic perspective of the Death with Dignity movement and the Oregon experience were provided over 11 years of meetings, phone calls, and emails.

Our founder and author of the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts, Eli D. Stutsman, JD, provided countless hours of legal counsel over the duration of the Vermont effort. In addition, we provided over 1,700 staff hours for educational and fundraising phone calls, political strategy and consultation, direct educational and fundraising support, constituent outreach through email, internet and social media, and coordination of travel of several speakers from Oregon and Washington to participate in forums across Vermont.

Note: This page contains information and text from Patient Choices Vermont.