This year, Vermonters celebrated four years of death with dignity in their state.
Vermont’s Act 39, the Patient Choice at the End of Life Act was the first medical aid in dying law passed through the legislative process, and paved the way for the adoption of assisted-dying laws by lawmakers in California and Washington, D.C.
Our partner organization, Patient Choices Vermont, has been working tirelessly to educate terminally ill patients, legislators, and medical professionals on the ins and outs of Act 39 and to ensure qualified Vermont residents can access the law. We spoke with PCV’s executive director, Betsy Walkerman, to hear about the organization’s progress in 2017 and her plans for next year.
What do you count as Patient Choices Vermont’s most important accomplishments in 2017?
We established PCV as a 501(c)(3) organization, reflecting our primary mission to educate Vermonters about end-of-life choice and how Act 39 works.
Patient Choices Vermont intervened in a lawsuit brought by the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and the Christian Medical and Dental Association. These groups contended that the state’s Patient’s Bill of Rights for Palliative Care and Pain Management and Act 39, which together require doctors to provide their patients with information about all available end-of-life options, violated their religious rights. The court dismissed the case, yet there are ongoing procedures that could affect doctors’ responsibilities.
We made sure the four bills filed in the legislature attempting to limit access to Act 39 did not receive serious consideration. We are keeping our lobbyists engaged and continue to educate legislators on Act 39.
We debuted our Living While Leaving video series, featuring stories of Vermonters who have used medical aid in dying. These stories, told from the heart, demystify the process of dying with dignity and give voice to the experiences of families who have experience with Act 39.
In November 2017, the Vermont Medical Society dropped its opposition to death with dignity: a watershed decision influenced in part by our work. The group had not updated its policy on medical aid in dying since before Act 39 passed in 2013. PCV board members were instrumental in the drafting of the new VMS policy. We are very pleased to see VMS now recognizing medical aid in dying as a legitimate option for patients, and respecting the individual choice of doctors to assist patients through the Act 39 process.
What were some of the obstacles you faced in the past year, and how will you address them in 2018?
Residents in the eastern part of the state have challenges because many receive healthcare from a New Hampshire institution (Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center). New Hampshire does not have a death with dignity statute, meaning that DHMC doctors who are licensed in New Hampshire cannot approve requests from terminally ill Vermont patients who wish to access medical aid in dying. Together with patients, we have brought this issue to the attention of the chief medical officer of DHMC, and are seeking to have them establish a process so that their Vermont patients can have access to Act 39 through their network’s Vermont-licensed physicians.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for raising awareness about Death with Dignity and gaining more support for medical aid in dying in Vermont?
BW: We have now recruited a number of volunteers who, along with PCV board members, will be available to give talks and participate in community meetings. We are seeking to network with the many organizations that are sponsoring community sessions on end of life in order to make sure that medical aid in dying is included in the discussions.
We also look forward to celebrating the five-year anniversary of Act 39 in May 2018.