'Death with Dignity' debated at the Legislature

CARSON CITY, Nev. (KOLO) Two years, six months and ten days ago, a young woman named Brittney Maynard took a life-ending drug to end her terminal fight with a brain tumor.. Maynard's story of moving from California to Oregon to take advantage of the state's 'Death with Dignity' law gained national attention, and put a face to doctor-assisted suicide.

"She fought," Maynard's mother, Debbie Ziegler said. "That's just who she was. She loved this world, this crazy, beautiful world. She fought and she agreed to a craniotomy."

The surgery removed less than 40% of the tumor, and Ziegler remembers the moment her daughter knew the end was near.

"90 days later, hoping maybe we bought some time, the word was the cancer had roared back," she said through tears. "Mama, she said, death is coming for me."

That was the emotional testimony Ziegler gave to the Senate Health and Human Services committee Wednesday afternoon as they considered SB261. Nevada Senator David Parks (D) wants to bring the same law that allowed Maynard to end her life to Nevada. SB 261 would allow terminally ill patients 18 years or older who have been given six months or less to live the option to seek 'Death with Dignity'.

Parks says the bill is an option for the suffering, but is designed to make sure patients make conscious and competent decisions throughout the process. If they meet the above qualifications, patients must then seek out two doctors who give the same diagnosis, and they cannot refer one another. The patient must be aware this is their voluntary choice. They must make two verbal requests and one written request for the drug with set number of times between each request. They must also be able to self-administer the drug. The bill does not require patients to meet with a psychologist, but either doctor can recommend the evaluation if they believe the patient may not be competent.

Doctors and pharmacists are also not required to participate.

"This is strictly voluntary," Parks said. "There is no requirement that any doctor or any pharmacist participate in Death with Dignity."

Supporters say it should be the patient's choice to not suffer, or make their families watch them deteriorate in pain. But opponents say this bill puts too many people at risk.

"This bill is a gift to insurance companies," Brianna Hammon, a disability advocate, said. "The tactic is to deny, deny, deny and hope I die in the meantime."

Opponents worry this bill will harm the disabled and elderly. They say these individuals will be at the mercy of people with an agenda like an adult child wanting their inheritance. A provision in the bill does prohibit the end of life medicine being provided solely on the basis of being disabled or elderly. It also makes it a felony for anyone to coerce someone to end their life.

Stephanie Packard, a California resident who has several medical conditions which have left her on hospice, says she's already been affected by California's 'Death with Dignity' law because it's the cheaper option.

"My doctors were able to get me on a new drug that had less side affects," she said. "I was told we're in. It's a go. As soon as the hospice company gets the medication, we'll start it. But the medicine didn't come. I was informed a few days later that they were no longer covering that medication for me."

She said the insurance company instead listed the 'Death with Dignity' as an option that was covered by her plan.

"She said that would be available to me if I wanted to pay a copay of $1.20," Packer said. "I shouldn't have to die sooner than I need to because somebody else wants to die today."

Senator Parks says the bill prohibits insurance companies from denying benefits or doctors from denying care just because physician-assisted suicide is legal.

"These individuals think that a doctor would give them end-of-life medication, but wouldn't give them medication or treatment," he said "There is absolutely no strong record of that being actually the case. This is a scare tactic."

"To hear people, the proponents and the leadership- the ones we're looking to, to hear them say it's a scare tactic, or they're making it look like this big huge thing, and try to scare people into not voting for it like, a scare tactic is the last thing I would think of," Parker said.

Five other states, California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, plus Washington, D.C., allow physician-assisted suicide. Since the law passed in Oregon 19 years ago, around 1,000 people have used it to end their lives. Last year in Oregon, 244 people requested and received the life-ending drug. Of those, 133 took the medication.

"You heard the numbers," Ziegler said. "Those people count. There aren't many of them but they count and they need your help."

Ziegler said she made promise to her daughter to advocate for more states to allow 'Death with Dignity."

"She said 'Mama, pay it forward. Speak up, even if your voice shakes. Don't let other people suffer," Ziegler said.

This was the first hearing for SB261. The bill received an exemption from the first house deadline. If it does make it out of the Legislature, it does face a possible veto from Governor Brian Sandoval. His spokeswoman, Mari St. Martin said in a statement, “The governor does not support this policy,”

The committee took no action on the bill.