111 terminally ill patients took their own lives in first 6 months of California right-to-die law

A total of 111 people in California took their own lives using lethal prescriptions during the first six months of a law that allows terminally ill people to request life-ending drugs from their doctors, according to data released Tuesday.

They were among 191 people in the state who received the prescriptions from their doctors; not all ended up using the drugs to kill themselves, state health officials said.

The End of Life Option Act went into effect in June 2016, making California the fifth state in the nation to allow patients with less than six months to live to request end-of-life drugs from their doctors.

Deaths from aid-in-dying made up six out of every 10,000 deaths in California between June and December 2016, according to state officials. That’s much lower than the 2016 rate in Oregon, which was the first state to legalize physician-assisted dying in 1998. Last year, lethal prescriptions accounted for 37.2 per 10,000 deaths in Oregon.

Experts say the lower numbers in California aren’t surprising since patients and physicians are still learning about the new law. In the first year that Oregon’s law was in effect, only 24 people requested prescriptions, though that number had climbed to 204 last year.

  • 59% of those who died using a lethal prescription had cancer.
  • 46% of those who died were male
  • 90% who died were white, 3% Latino and 5% Asian
  • 58% who died had a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 57% who died had Medicare, Medicaid or another type of government insurance; 31% had private insurance; 4% were uninsured
  • The rate of lethal prescription deaths was 6 per 10,000 total deaths in the state.
  • 79% of those who died using a lethal prescription had cancer.
  • 54% of those who died were male
  • 96% who died were white, 1.5% Latino and 1.5% Asian
  • 50% who died had a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 70% who died had Medicare, Medicaid or another type of government insurance; 30% had private insurance; fewer than 1% were uninsured.
  • The rate of lethal prescription deaths was 37 per 10,000 total deaths in the state.

Doctor participation is completely voluntary. Physicians who feel uncomfortable with the practice are not required to prescribe the medication or refer patients to doctors who will.

California’s data show that 173 physicians wrote the 191 prescriptions.

Last year in Oregon, 102 doctors wrote 204 prescriptions, with at least one physician writing 25, state data show.

For a patient to get a prescription, two doctors must confirm he or she has no more than six months to live and are of sound mental capacity to make a decision to commit suicide. A psychiatric evaluation isn’t required, but doctors concerned about a patient’s mental state are supposed to refer patients to a mental health professional.

Right-to-die advocates rally in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2015. California's assisted suicide law took effect June 9.
Right-to-die advocates rally in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2015. California’s assisted suicide law took effect June 9. (Russell Contreras / Associated Press)

Sherry Minor’s husband John Minor was suffering with a terminal lung disease last year that was very painful, despite morphine. The 80-year-old retired psychologist had lost 80 pounds and could barely eat or talk.

John Minor told Sherry he was miserable.

“He just thought he couldn’t go on,” she said.

But they struggled to find a doctor who would participate under the the law, until they switched to Kaiser and ultimately got a prescription.

“It was an enormous relief,” said Minor, who lives in Manhattan Beach. “He just felt more comfortable with that mentally.”

Minor, surrounded by his family, took the pills in September 2016.

“John did what was right for him,” said Minor. “He died peacefully, rather than in agony, and he was in control. He didn’t feel afraid or helpless.”

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