It’s Been One Year Since Vermont Made History

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One year ago today, Vermont made history. May 20, 2013, was the day Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill to make Vermont the third state in the US with a Death with Dignity law—the first law of its kind on the East Coast, and the first passed through the legislative process. I was honored to be among the crowd which gathered to witness the bill signing ceremony. What a day!

It was a day full of emotion and elation. Some folks at the ceremony were facing serious illnesses and were relieved to know they’d have more options if their prognoses became terminal. People who’d carefully considered what’s best for themselves their entire lives simply wanted more control over their final days. Each person I talked to recognized that what might be the best decision for one person may not be what others would choose, but one truth prevailed: all individuals should be able to make that decision for themselves.

These principles are fundamental to Death with Dignity laws. People who’ve made all the major decisions in their lives—whether or when to get married, buy a house, have children—typically also want to have the option to make their final decision about how they die. As Governor Shumlin said during his speech, Death with Dignity “does not compel anyone to do anything they don’t choose in sound mind to do.” It’s the decision of a terminally ill, mentally competent individual, and no one else.

Vermont’s law, which emulates the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts, was achieved after more than 10 years of dedicated work together with our partners in Vermont. And our work didn’t stop there.

Soon after the law went into effect, National Center board member George Eighmey (who was with me at the bill signing ceremony) and other professionals familiar with the processes in Oregon and Washington worked closely with Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen to develop a system in full compliance with the Vermont law.

With our firsthand knowledge of Death with Dignity laws, we also quickly became a resource to help doctors and pharmacists in the state learn more about their rights, the safeguards in the law, and the request process. In addition, throughout the year, we provided information directly to terminally ill Vermonters seeking information about the state’s new law.

With Vermont’s law in place and celebrating one year, momentum toward Death with Dignity policy reform is now growing from, quite literally, coast to coast. It’s a matter of perseverance and time before all terminally ill Americans will have the option to control the manner and timing of their own deaths. With your support, the Death with Dignity National Center will be there every step of the way!

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Vermont Becomes the 3rd State with a Death with Dignity Law

With Governor Shumlin's signature on May 20, 2013, Vermont became the third state in the nation with a Death with Dignity law–the first one to be enacted through a legislative process and first of its kind on the east coast.

This historic accomplishment was the culmination of over ten years of work by our partners in the state, Patient Choices Vermont, and their president Dick Walters has diligently led the way the entire time. Over the years, many experts on Oregon's law traveled to Vermont to help lawmakers and voters learn more about these important laws, and one of these experts was George Eighmey who serves on the Death with Dignity National Center board of directors and, for 12 years, helped terminally ill Oregonians navigate Oregon's Death with Dignity law.

Melissa Barber from Death with Dignity National Center had the opportunity recently to chat with Dick Walters and George Eighmey about the impact of Vermont's new law allowing for Death with Dignity. Listen to the entire interview below.

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Vermont House and Senate Pass Death with Dignity

Vermont made history today!

The Vermont House and Senate both approved the same version of a law based on Oregon’s model Death with Dignity legislation, and the bill now heads to the governor’s desk for signature. In the past, Governor Shumlin has indicated he’ll sign the bill if it reaches his desk. With the Governor’s signature, Vermont becomes the third state with an assisted dying law and the first state to enact this law through a legislative process. A historic achievement.

This achievement comes after over 10 years of diligent work by our partners, Patient Choices Vermont. In August of 2002, dedicated volunteer Dick Walters brought together a group of Vermonters who wanted their state to allow the same rights Oregonians had because of the groundbreaking Death with Dignity Act. Knowing he needed to consult experts in passing this sort of law, he contacted the only organization which had successfully written and passed such a law: Oregon Death with Dignity, the predecessor of the Death with Dignity National Center.

Right from the beginning, the Death with Dignity National Center formed a strong partnership with Dick Walters and his group, Patient Choices Vermont, to advance legislation allowing for safeguarded assisted death, and we’ve been there every step of the way. Over the years, we’ve joined our credibility, knowledge, and connections to end-of-life care experts with Patient Choices’ dedication to Death with Dignity policy reform in their state.

Beyond our countless hours of work lending political experience to help Patient Choices, we connected them to people who’ve seen Oregon’s law in action through their work in hospice and palliative care. One such expert is Ann Jackson, former Executive Director of the Oregon Hospice Association. Reflecting back on her most recent trips to Vermont, Ann said:

What was most different—and gratifying—about Vermont’s experience was that the House and Senate, as whole bodies, were able to discuss or debate the issue. The bills did not die in committee. What was most interesting was the quality of the discussions in committees—thoughtful and looking for good and truthful information.

The House and Senate debates were more about innuendo and lacked depth. This is not criticism—it is expected that committees seek information and learn and teach. What was most frustrating is that Oregon’s credibility is questioned, even when data and independent studies corroborate state findings. The same dire predictions are being made now that were made in Oregon in 1994 and 1997—and proven wrong—and in every state and country that has considered physician-assisted dying before and after.

But today, facts and data won. Oregon’s law now has 15 years of data demonstrating the groundbreaking Death with Dignity Act written by our founding board member Eli Stutsman is no longer an experiment or test case; it now serves as the model for end-of-life care policy reform. All of us here at the Death with Dignity National Center applaud Vermont lawmakers and Patient Choices Vermont for being truly dedicated to patient-centered care and moving one step closer to allowing all Vermonters to determine how to live out their final days when death draws near.

The bill now heads to Governor Shumlin’s desk for final approval. With his signature, Vermont will take the historic step of becoming the first state to enact Death with Dignity through a legislative process.

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For Immediate Release: Vermont Senate Passes Amended Death with Dignity Bill

Contact: Peg Sandeen, MSW, Executive Director
              Death with Dignity National Center
              503-228-4415
              psandeen@deathwithdignity.org

The Vermont legislature is in a position to enact historic legislation in the next few days. Should the Vermont House vote to concur with a Senate amendment passed on Wednesday, May 8, Vermont will become the first state in the nation to pass a Death with Dignity law through the legislative process.

The bill has had a difficult journey to passage and faces two more hurdles: the above-mentioned House concurrence and signature by the Governor. In past statements, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has promised to sign carefully-safeguarded Death with Dignity legislation, and he issued the following statement today:

I understand the deep convictions held by Vermonters on all sides of this extraordinarily personal issue. But I also know how important it is for those who face terminal illness and tremendous pain to have this choice, in conjunction with their physicians and loved ones, in the final days of their lives. I am grateful for the Legislature’s continued hard work on this difficult issue.

Legislative committees have heard days of emotional testimony from opponents and supporters, including Ann Jackson, former Executive Director of the Oregon Hospice Association and George Eighmey, who helped terminally ill Oregonians navigate the Oregon’s Death with Dignity law for 12 years. Lawmakers themselves participated in days of debate and several rounds of voting. The House concurrence vote, likely to occur in the next few days, will be the bill’s second trip to the House this year.

In fact, legislators have been exploring this issue since 2003 in the Green Mountain State, when a bill entitled the Vermont Death with Dignity Act was introduced by 38 sponsors in the House and 8 members in the Senate. According to Peg Sandeen, Executive Director of the Death with Dignity National Center, “We are so pleased that legislators in Vermont have taken another bold step toward expanding end-of-life options for terminally ill Vermonters. We have been committed to policy reform efforts in Vermont for over 10 years, and we are proud to partner with the dedicated individuals involved in Patient Choices Vermont.”

As with any legislation, there are no guarantees the House will support the Senate’s version of the proposed law. Sandeen added, “While there are no promises nor guarantees when it comes to the legislative process, our research shows Vermont has led the nation on improving indoor air quality, marriage equality, prescription drug access and Medicaid reform, we believe Vermont will take the lead on end-of-life care reform, also.” Should the Vermont House concur with the Senate version of the bill, Vermont will become the third state in the US, following Oregon and Washington, with a carefully-safeguarded law allowing terminally ill and mentally competent adults to hasten their deaths.

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Vermont House Passes Death with Dignity

VT Statehouse, photo by Mark Danielson on flickr
VT Statehouse, photo by Mark Danielson on flickr

Vermont took another step toward allowing terminally ill people to decide the manner and timing of their deaths through a safeguarded process. Today, the Vermont House approved a bill emulating the time-tested Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts by a vote of 81-64. The path has been a long one, and it still has a ways to go before a final version would be presented to Governor Shumlin.

Since its introduction to the full Senate for debate earlier this year, the proposed bill has taken a meandering path. In the Senate, the bill was drastically amended before being approved and sent to the state House. In the House, the Senate bill was introduced and referred to the House Human Services Committee for consideration.

After listening to hours of expert testimony, the committee voted to restore the original bill’s safeguards, bringing it more in line with the existing Death with Dignity laws. Because of the changes to the structure of the bill, the House Judiciary Committee had to go through it with a fine tooth comb to make sure the proposed bill would work with existing Vermont laws.

At the end of last week, the Judiciary Committee had completed its inspection, and approved the bill for consideration by the full House. After a lively floor debate over the course of two days, the House advanced a bill today which differs from the Senate bill. Before a bill can be sent to the Governor, the Senate either needs to agree to the House’s amended bill or request a Committee of Conference made up of House and Senate members to find common ground between the two versions. If a Committee of Conference is assembled, the version they come up with would need to approved by both the Senate and the House before moving to the Governor’s desk.

No doubt about it, the Death with Dignity movement is standing on the precipice of monumental change, and we’ll be there every step of the way until all terminally ill Americans have the right to a dignified death. Thank you for your support.

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Vermont House Human Services Committee Advances Death with Dignity

All the recent legislative activity surrounding Death with Dignity shows Americans are ready for a meaningful conversation about how we die. Your support makes it possible for us to work with people throughout the US to advance these discussions.

Some highlights:

  • Vermont: Our partners on the ground are mobilizing citizens to talk to their lawmakers about why these laws are needed. A Death with Dignity bill has already cleared the Senate, and moments ago, the House Human Services Committee voted to advance a bill with safeguards which emulates the time-tested Oregon Death with Dignity Act. The bill now moves to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration, and Judiciary has dedicated this week to hearing testimony on the bill.
  • New Jersey: A bill which would lead to a voter referendum for a Death with Dignity law has been sent to the floor of the House for consideration.
  • New Hampshire: The House advanced a bill to study Death with Dignity laws.

Read more about these & other states >

Stand with us as we make history and lead the way toward real and lasting healthcare policy reform to allow for safeguarded assisted dying. Your tax-deductible gift of $50, $100, or even $500 makes all the difference. Thank you.

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Vermont House Committee Decides to Focus on Bill Language with Safeguards

Dr. Angell testifying in VT. Photo care of Patient Choices
Dr. Angell testifying in VT. Photo care of Patient Choices

Great news from Vermont today! After hearing testimony from various end-of-life care experts, advocates, and some opponents over the last two weeks, the Vermont House Human Services Committee decided to focus on bill language with safeguards modeled on the Oregon Death with Dignity legislation. All of us here at the Death with Dignity National Center applaud the Vermont House committee members on their decision and extend an enormous thank you to our partners, Patient Choices Vermont, for all of their hard work to get to this historic moment.

But let’s step back a moment, and get everyone caught up. Back in February, the Vermont Senate advanced Senate Bill 77 after drastically amending the language of the bill to remove the safeguards similar to the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts, and moved the bill to the state House for consideration. The bill was introduced and filed with the Vermont House Human Services Committee. Because the House Judiciary Committee is likely to be involved if Human Services decides to change the bill back to be more in line with the existing Death with Dignity laws, the two House Committees held joint hearings to gather testimony.

Last week, committee members heard from end-of-life care experts including George Eighmey, Anne Jackson, Harry Chen, and Diana Barnard. This week, the committees heard from advocates and proponents at a public hearing and continued listening to more end-of-life care experts such as Dr. Marcia Angell and people who are dying of terminal illnesses and want more end-of-life options like Ben Underhill.

This morning, the Human Services Committee began their work in earnest to determine whether they wanted to keep the Senate version of the bill or focus on bill language which would include extensive safeguards such as the ones found in the Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts. They decided to focus on bill language with safeguards modeled on the Oregon law.

The bill still has a long road ahead of it; check back often for the latest news. You can also catch up on videos and audio files of the recent testimony in Vermont through Patient Choices Vermont’s website.

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Vermont House Committees Hear Testimony on Death with Dignity Bill

Patient Choices VT Ad "Now--Not in 10 Years"

The proposed Vermont Death with Dignity bill started its journey through the state’s House of Representatives in earnest this week. The bill (Senate Bill 77) took some unusual turns before being approved by the Senate on February 14th of this year. This week, House Judiciary and Human Services committees heard from Senators about the bill’s path in the Senate and end-of-life care experts familiar with the need for safeguards in Death with Dignity laws.

The hearings started on Wednesday with Sen. Claire Ayer explaining the process the bill went through in the Senate. She was followed by many people with extensive knowledge about Death with Dignity laws including Jean Mallary—widow of Vermont Congressman Richard Mallary.

Hearings continued on Thursday and included supportive testimony from several notables: two former governors, Barbara Roberts from Oregon and Madeleine Kunin from Vermont; Harry Chen, Vermont Commissioner of Public Health; George Eighmey, the newest Death with Dignity National Center board member, former Oregon legislator, and former executive director of the Oregon nonprofit which works directly with patients to access the state’s Death with Dignity Act; and respected palliative care physician Diana Barnard.

The hearings this week wrapped up with expert testimony from Ann Jackson who headed up the Oregon Hospice Association when Oregon’s law went into effect and Marnie Wood (featured in Patient Choices’ Ad available on their website) whose sister used Oregon’s law.

Next up: a public hearing on Tuesday, April 16th. Stay up-to-date through our blog and on social media through Facebook and Twitter.

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Vermont Senate Advances Bill

The process of passing laws is a bit like making sausage, the end product is often good, but you probably don’t really want to see how the product came to be. The many twists and turns the Vermont Death with Dignity bill experienced this week were no exception.

Over the course of three days, the Senate held hours of lively debate about the proposed legislation. After the bill was drastically amended, they passed Senate Bill 77 by a margin of 22 to 8. If you’re curious about the minutiae of this week’s proceedings, check out the Seven Days summary.

The bill now heads to the House in the next steps in its journey. Look for a major overhaul in the House where the majority of the members have said they support laws emulating the time-tested Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts.

The bill still has a long ways to go in the sausage-making process. We’ll continue to keep updates coming your way through our blog and on social media through Facebook and Twitter.

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Vermont Senate to Debate Death with Dignity

Sen. Ayer responding to questions, photo by Kirk Carpezza of VPR
Sen. Ayer responding to questions, photo by Kirk Carpezza of VPR

After hours of discussion today, the Vermont Senate voted 17-13 to allow debate on the proposed Death with Dignity bill (Senate Bill 77) in spite of the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation to the contrary. Debate on the bill will take place tomorrow at 1:30 pm ET. You can listen to the proceedings live on Vermont Public Radio. If you can’t listen in, they’ll likely also blog about it live like they did today.

Senators who support and oppose the bill questioned the chairs of the two committees which heard testimony on the bill, Health and Human Services and the Judiciary, with most of the questions directed at Senator Claire Ayer, the chair of Health and Human Services. She deftly and politely responded to many opponents baseless claims and assertions and presented the facts available from 15 years of data on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

One of my favorite sequences was when Senator Dick McCormack spoke about why this new law is necessary. From his impassioned speech: “Under present law, the person does not get to make their own decision. I don’t want other people’s bishops making that decision for me. I want to make my own decisions.”

The national conversation around Death with Dignity laws is undergoing a major shift right now. In addition to these exciting developments in Vermont, the New Jersey Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee recently heard testimony on a proposed bill and decided to move the bill to the full Assembly for debate, and the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a proposed law yesterday. We’ll continue to keep you up-to-date with these and other legislative actions.

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