The barriers to using medical aid in dying remain so high that in one state, pharmacists are fighting back and helping terminally-ill individuals find physicians willing to help.
We know this because of a recent Kaiser Health News story by JoNel Aleccia. Aleccia is the same reporter who covered the first article about the Colorado physician, Dr. Barbara Morris, who was fired last August 2019 by her employer, Centura Health Corp. Centura, a Catholic and Seventh-Day Adventist-run health care system, fired Dr. Morris for agreeing to prescribe life-ending medication to her terminally-ill, End of Life Option Act eligible patient, Neil Mahoney. We highlighted that story in our September 3 blog Barriers to Medical Aid in Dying Even When it is Legal. Not only did Dr. Morris lose her job, she lost care of her patient, her office, and her malpractice insurance.
Aleccia wanted to know what happened to the patient, Neil Mahoney? What happened to Dr. Morris? She takes us to Golden, Colorado where Mahoney and Dr. Morris filed a lawsuit; the case is pending. Due to his declining health, Mahoney had to leave the suit, but was able to gain access to his state’s medical aid-in-dying law thanks to a pharmacist who reached out to him as part of “a network that quietly connects terminally-ill patients in Colorado with doctors willing to follow the law”.
This compassionate group is called Dying with Dignity of the Rockies, Aleccia informs us. We know of at least two pharmacists in California who fill aid-in-dying prescriptions who have indicated they are only too happy to match patients with physicians they know are willing to help.
As Colorado pharmacist Rodney Diffendaffer points out, there are many doctors willing to help, but they don’t want their names on a public list. California physicians feel the same, and we understand and respect that. He also points out that it is the patient’s choice to have the aid-in-dying drugs; no one else should have a say.
The lack of physicians willing to prescribe medical aid in dying due to pressure from employers is just one of the many barriers that persist in California as in Colorado and the other states. This reluctance may be based on religious or moral reasons, or fear of being fired or of censure by their employers or colleagues. Whatever the reason, as Dr. Morris said, “medical-aid-in-dying should be part of a continuum of care for dying patients”. We agree with her wholeheartedly.
By late September, and thanks to a Colorado physician who had prescribed MAID only once before, Neil Mahoney had his medication in hand. Neil expressed great relief. Now he was back in control of his living while dying, and had many plans to make: who will care for his dog, his cat, and what about his other belongings, while planning how to say goodbye to friends and loved ones. Neil took his life-ending medication after he became more frail, but while still able to swallow, a requirement under the law. He took his medication on the evening of November 5, surrounded by his large and supportive Catholic family. He fell into a deep sleep and died an hour later, peacefully, as was his wish.
What about Dr. Morris? Her suit is pending in the courts, and she has found another place to practice medicine. When notified of Neil’s peaceful death, she was grateful he had found a way to access the law while also regretful that the religious bias of her former employer had prevented her from helping him. She went on to say that as a memorial to Neil she, and physicians and pharmacists like her “will continue to advocate for care focused on patient values and wishes.”
The Colorado physician who prescribed medical aid in dying for Neil stated that it is her job to relieve pain and suffering and to inform her patients of all the choices in dying available to them.
This continues to be the mission and work of End of Life Choices California: informing Californians of all their end of life choices. If you would like to help us carry on this mission, please make a donation here or complete a volunteer application here – or do both! We need volunteers well placed throughout this massive state of nearly 40,000,000 people.
A special thank you to JoNel Aleccia for her factually correct, excellent reporting on this important issue!
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Thanks for this coverage. As we know, hospitals in the Bay Area, including UCSF, have imposed rules for implementation that make it difficult or impossible for eligible patients to access the full range of end of life options made theoretically possible by the CA End of Life Options Act. We need to find ways to improve that situation, including a way to alter UCSF’s rule against accepting referrals for patients who wish to use MAID — a rule that excludes referrals from the closely associated VA hospital which, being a Federal institution, isn’t protected by the California law.
Agreed! Thanks so much for your comment!