'End of Life Choices' bill clears Senate thanks to Ayer
MIDDLEBURY — Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, was working with other state officials early this week to draft compromise language for an “End of Life Choices” bill she believes can pass muster with House and Senate members before the end of this session.
As of press time Wednesday evening it appeared the Senate had fashioned a compromise that satisfied 17 of the 30 members of that body — one more than the number needed to pass. Details on the compromise were not immediately available, but they clearly satisfied the first hurdle — gaining a majority of the Senate to buy in.
Thursday and Friday will see how close the updated End of Life Choices bill that passed in the Senate Wednesday will satisfy members of the Vermont House.
A compromise is essential if supporters of the controversial bill — which would set up a state-sanctioned process for physicians to assist terminally ill patients in taking their own lives — are to collect enough votes to win final passage of the measure before the Legislature’s adjournment target of May 11 — this Saturday. The House last week passed a bill calling for Vermont to establish an Oregon-style “Death with Dignity” law, through which doctors could prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to requesting patients diagnosed as having less than six months to live.
But that bill, supported by five of the county’s nine House representatives, this week was in the process of being reconciled with a version passed by the Senate on Feb. 14 that was far more rudimentary. That Senate bill would have simply grant immunity to physicians who prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to terminally ill patients. It also would have indemnify any person who was with the patient at time of death. Senators were deadlocked 15-15 on that scaled-down version of bill S.77, with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott breaking the tie.
Ayer, the Senate’s assistant majority leader and chairwoman of the Health and Welfare Committee, was face this week with helping fashion a compromise version of S.77 that would win favor in the Senate for a more comprehensive bill while maintaining support within the House.
Ayer said on Monday she believes the key to winning some more votes in the Senate lies in shortening what some believed was a too-lengthy bill while providing assurances that patients will be as informed as possible before making the critical decision of ending their own lives.
“The first series of objections we had were about interventions,” Ayer said. “Are we sure the person is dying? Are we sure the person is not depressed? Are we sure the person has gotten all the palliative care and hospice care they should have to make them comfortable and make them want to live longer?”
Supporters also had to convince some senators who believe the House-passed version of S.77 is too long, too complicated, involves too many hoops and entails too much government interference. Early in the week, Ayer said she believes the prospects are good in finding converts among this group of senators.
“We have existing legislation that protects the rights of patients at the end of life, and I think we can — instead of making these lists of check-offs — we can refer to those things and make a bill that is shorter and more appealing to the people who worry about state intervention,” Ayer said. “Patients will still have protections.”
So instead of lengthy checklists, Ayer and others are looking at a shorter way of conveying that patients’ standards of care will be observed and honored. Current state law already guarantees patients rights, according to Ayer.
The short version of S.77 that passed the Senate in February “had protections for doctors that basically allowed them to get away with malpractice” and provided nothing in terms of guarantees for patients, according to Ayer.
“I think (with the compromise) we are going to end up in a place where we have protections for patients and protections for the few doctors who will wish to help the few patients who will want this option,” Ayer said. “It will help them get through the conversation and make sure they understand all of the options, that they are getting all of the care they need and deserve and can do this with a much shorter bill.”
Ayer realizes some of her colleagues are philosophically opposed to any legislation sanctioning suicide, and that these lawmakers will not support S.77 no matter how much it is tweaked.
While Ayer was optimistic on Monday of a compromise, she remained concerned about parliamentary procedures that could delay or kill S.77. Among them: Sending the bill back to committee, a request that the Senate Judiciary panel take a look at any new language in the proposed law, a vote to table the bill, or tactics to bury the measure until other business is done and the pressure is on for the General Assembly to adjourn.
“There already has been an effort to postpone it a bit, and we didn’t agree to that,” Ayer said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.