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Hospital says it will comply with end-of-life law — for now

Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena will participate in California’s assisted suicide law when it takes effect Thursday. But that could change down the road.

I reported last month that medical leaders at the hospital quietly had voted for the facility's hundreds of doctors and affiliated personnel to opt out of the End of Life Option Act, which allows physicians to prescribe medication to hasten the death of terminally ill adults.

The hospital’s board of directors was expected to finalize the opt-out decision at its May 26 meeting. But Huntington’s top brass is proceeding more cautiously now that the controversial matter is public knowledge.

“It's unlikely Huntington Hospital will make a decision regarding its participation under the act before June 9th when the act goes into effect,” Derek Clark, a Huntington spokesman, told me by email. “We are being thoughtful and deliberate in our process and will therefore not restrict ourselves to a set timeline.”

For the time being, he said, “Huntington Hospital will fully comply with the act regarding its patients and will ensure patients are made aware, as appropriate, of the full range of end-of-life and palliative care options available to them, both from our hospital and from other providers."

According to an insider, Huntington doctors have been told that the board “has referred the issue to an ad hoc committee for further study.”

The End of Life Option Act, which is modeled on Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, allows physicians to prescribe medication to hasten the death of competent adults who have been diagnosed with terminal illness and have six months or less to live. The patient must be able to self-administer the medication.

Most, if not all, religious hospitals in California are expected to reject the law on moral grounds. For secular facilities such as Huntington, the question is whether helping a patient end his or her life is ethically consistent with a commitment to protecting people’s well-being.

“Hospitals have been scrambling to determine how they’re going to respond to the law,” said Felicia Cohn, a UC Irvine medical professor who also serves as medical bioethics director for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County. “There are very strong feelings on all sides of this issue.”

Kaiser will respect the law, she said, but will allow individual doctors to opt out. Sutter Health and UCLA have adopted similar positions.

However, Cohn said Huntington is by no means alone among non-religious hospitals in giving mixed signals about its intentions.

“There are so many questions, what ifs and worries,” she said. “I think many hospitals throughout the state are having similar difficulties.”

Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said he wasn't surprised to see hand-wringing among operators of secular facilities.

“The healthcare industry is very divided on this issue,” he said. “The law allows doctors and hospitals to opt out, and I think many will do that.”

Huntington’s medical leadership approved an amendment to the hospital’s rules in late April saying that “Huntington Hospital has chosen not to participate in the act, and therefore no Huntington Hospital employees, independent contractors, or other persons or entities that work at or with Huntington Hospital may participate in activities under the act while on the premises of Huntington Hospital, or while acting within the scope of any employment or contractual relationship with Huntington Hospital."

Cohn speculated that a blanket opt-out might have been intended to shield the hospital’s more than 800 affiliated doctors from having to explain to terminally ill patients that they won’t help them under the terms of the law.

Matt Whitaker, California state director for the end-of-life advocacy group Compassion & Choices, said the difficulty for hospitals like Huntington isn’t that they’re unsure of the right thing to do. Rather, it’s a fear of the unknown.

“This is a brand new thing,” Whitaker said. “People don’t know what to expect. What we’ve seen in other states is that once a hospital understands its patients’ experiences under such a law, there’s a lot more comfort.”

‘Oldchella’ chairs

Another update: I wrote the other day about the organizer of the upcoming Desert Trip music festival – snarkily dubbed “Oldchella” because of its geriatric rock acts – forbidding general-admission ticket holders from bringing chairs and blankets.

This wasn’t received well by aging audience members who previously had received online assurance that they wouldn’t have to park on the ground for the three-day event on back-to-back weekends in October.

Well, I’m glad to say that after I exposed the switcheroo to some sunlight, the concert organizer, Goldenvoice, has changed its tune.

“We heard you loud and clear,” the company is emailing ticket holders who complained about the no-chairs-or-blankets policy. “Small blankets and low back chairs WILL be allowed in designated viewing areas of the venue. We apologize for the confusion our previous decision caused.”

Lindsay Lyons, a Goldenvoice spokeswoman, declined to comment. But she forwarded a screenshot from the Desert Trip website acknowledging the more accommodating policy. She also helpfully provided examples of acceptable low-back chairs.

Desert Trip performers include Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Who, Neil Young and Roger Waters.

Rock on.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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