With the strokes from three gubernatorial pens, Vermont on Monday became the fourth state in the country to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients.
Vermont is the first state to pass such a law through the legislative process. Oregon and Washington enacted their laws by referendum; in Montana, it was legalized by the courts.
“This historic achievement is a political breakthrough that will boost support for death-with-dignity bills nationwide,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee. The group describes itself as the nation’s leading advocacy group for end-of-life decisions.
The law, which went into effect Monday, allows for an end-of-life procedure with the consent of a patient’s doctor after the patient has made more than one request for help in ending life. The bill also stipulates that the patient has a chance to retract the request.
Under the bill, a qualifying patient must be at least 18 years old, a Vermont resident and suffering from an “incurable and irreversible disease,” with less than six months to live. Two physicians, including the prescribing doctor, must make that medical determination. The patient must also be told of other end-of-life services, “including palliative care, comfort care, hospice care, and pain control,” according to the bill.
The House gave final passage last Monday, meaning that hospitals have had a very small window to prepare for legalization.
“We are not ready,” Laural Ruggles, spokeswoman for the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in St. Johnsbury, told reporters last week.
Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), chairwoman of the state Senate Health and Welfare Committee and that body’s chief champion of the legislation, said Friday that she was not surprised the hospitals would want additional time before implementing the new law.
“My guess is they want to make sure they have everything all lined up and they know exactly what they’re doing,” she said.