Washington State Celebrates One Year of Dignity With Death

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At least 36 terminally ill people died last year after taking lethal medication prescribed by doctors under Washington State's new physician-assisted suicide law.

A total of 63 people filled prescriptions for lethal medication, but not everyone took it. Of those 63 people, 36 people who did take the medication died choosing to die with dignity. The others who did fill the prescriptions did die, but from complications of their illness.

Those were the findings released Thursday morning in a state Department of Health report on the law, which allows physicians to prescribe lethal medication to patients who have six months or less to live. The law was passed by voters in 2008 and the assisted-suicide law, or the right to die with dignity law went into effect a year ago today.

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The law, approved in November 2008 by 58 percent of voters, allows terminally ill adults seeking to end their life to request lethal doses of medications from physicians and die with dignity. Today marks the first anniversary since the controversial law was enacted.

"In all of the terminal at-home care situations I've seen, I cannot think of one in our county," Brett Dundas, Cowlitz County chief deputy coroner, said Thursday. "Every death comes across my desk. We would have made note of that." Those who died were between the ages of 48 and 95. Most had terminal cancer and all were expected to die within six month.

Most patients who died under the law in Washington last year had cancer. Doctors who prescribe the medication must submit forms to the State Department of Health about patients who received the medication and said those who died cited “loss of autonomy” as a reason for seeking it. Most also said they could no longer enjoy life and feared losing “dignity.”

Ten patients said they were concerned about being a burden on their family and friends, 11 cited pain and one said finances. Critics of the law have said it could prompt disproportionate use by lower-income people. Almost all of those who died in Washington said they had private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or some combination. None said they had no insurance at all, though coverage was listed as unknown for five people. Most died within 90 minutes of taking the medicine, though at least one person lived for 28 hours.

"We're disappointed that there are areas in the state where accessibility is very low, especially east of the mountains," said Dr. Tom Preston, medical director of Compassion & Choices, a Seattle group that advocated for the act. He said the number of requests for lethal doses was about what he expected for the first year.
Robb Miller, executive director of Compassion & Choices in Washington, a group that had fought for passage of the law says, "It shows that a significant number of people are using the law for peace of mind and control, sort of like insurance," he said. "One doesn't run out and burn one's home down just because you get fire insurance."

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