An estimated 45 to 55 terminally ill adults have requested prescriptions for life-ending medication in the year since Colorado voters legalized medical aid-in-dying, advocacy group Compassion & Choices reports.
The estimate is based on inquiries to Compassion & Choices’ end-of-life consultation program, as well as information that supporters and providers have shared with the organization. The precise number will be available in the state’s annual report, expected next spring.
The law, which took effect on Dec. 16, 2016, allows mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or fewer to live to request a doctor’s prescription for medication that will allow them to end their lives in their homes.
Aurora resident Herb Myers, whose wife, Kathy, is believed to be the first Coloradan to have received a prescription for medical aid-in-dying, told Compassion & Choices that the law offered comfort.
“When we actually got the medication, it was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders,” he said. “She put on four pounds, which was a big deal. She felt so much more at ease with life in general.” He described his wife’s eventual death as “very gentle.”
That has not been true for everyone, as the Denver Post reported in a story about one couple’s difficult experience with the new law, which requires that patients make three requests for the medication — one written and two verbal, one of which must be made alone, without any family members or other people present. Two separate physicians must make the diagnosis of terminal illness with a life expectancy of six months or fewer. Primary care doctors are also encouraged to request psychiatric examinations when needed.
The couple, Susan and Kurt Huschle, found the process required to get a prescription for Kurt confusing, and the medication itself so expensive they had to use a less costly alternative. When Kurt finally took the medication, his death was neither as quick nor as peaceful as expected.
Kat West, Compassion & Choices’ national director of policy, acknowledged in the Post story that, as with any new law, the implementation isn’t immediate or easy. Still, she called Colorado’s implementation process “on par, if not better in some regards, with medical aid-in-dying laws that took effect in California last year and in Oregon 20 years ago.” The law, she said, is working as voters intended.
“All of the large secular healthcare systems have adopted policies supportive of patient end-of-life decision making,” she said. That includes Kaiser, the University of Colorado system and HealthOne. Compassion & Choices reports that 81 healthcare facilities in 30 towns across Colorado and 16 hospice locations in 15 towns have adopted such policies.
According to data from Compassion & Choices, almost 300 Coloradans have accessed the group’s “Find Care Tool,” which shows where the public can find facilities that support aid-in-dying. And the organization has provided education about aid-in-dying to more than 500 doctors through online programming.
A full map of facilities that support aid-in-dying is available here.
The ballot measure to allow the policy was one of the most popular in recent state history: 65 percent of voters supported it, compared to 35 percent who voted “no.” Among critics were Catholic hospitals and organizations representing people with disabilities, who refer to the measure as “assisted suicide,” and argue, among other things, that it could put some of Colorado’s most vulnerable people at risk. Colorado became the sixth U.S. state to allow the policy, along with California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C.