Push to allow right to die in Colorado

Posted at 12:59 PM, Dec 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-03 14:59:21-05

A push is underway to make Colorado the sixth state to allow doctors to prescribe end-of-life medication to some terminally ill patients.

A similar effort failed during the last legislative session.

Roland Halpern of Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit working to improve patient’s rights and choice at the end of life, told Denver 7 that the 2016 proposal has been modified to address concerns expressed the last time around.

The bill has been given a new name -- Colorado End of Life Options Act.

“Another change,” Halpern said, “is the requirement to have doctors counsel their patients on storage and disposal of the medication.”

“We have the same goals as last year,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver.  “It’s to give comfort, physical and psychological, to people at the end of life.”

Opponents say there are still concerns that re-writing the bill can’t address.

Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs, said she’s concerned about the security of the drugs that would be used to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

“We know teens especially are prone to sampling what’s in the medicine cabinet,” Landgraf said. “They take them to what’s called a farm party.  Medicine gets thrown into a bowl. People try different things.  What’s going to keep somebody from doing that?”

Landgraf said a terminally ill patient’s family members might access the drugs, without knowing they could be fatal.

Littleton resident Patti James says she’ll support the proposal.

“My father died several years ago,” she said.  “He had no options.”

James told Denver 7 that her father died in a pen at a nursing home.

“They had to put him in there because of such severe agitation,” she said.  “I’m a psychiatric nurse, so I know something about agitation and I know something about death, and his was hard.”

James said that because she was a nurse, her father asked her continuously to do something for him.

“Because of the law, we couldn’t do anything,” she said.  “We were helpless.”

James said her father’s suffering is just one reason why she’ll support the bill.  Another is because she has lung cancer.

“I want to die in Colorado,” she said. “I don’t want to have to travel to Washington.  I want to be here in the state that I love, with my family.  And I don’t want my family to have to experience guilt.”

Elaine and Julie Selsberg understand what James has been through.

Their father, Charles, died earlier this year after a struggle with ALS.

“We watched him suffer for two years before he was even diagnosed,” Julie Selsberg said.  “And after he was diagnosed, we watched him decline.”

Selsberg told Denver 7 that her father wrote a commentary, that was published in the Denver Post, saying that his disease progressed so quickly that he didn’t have time to create a bucket list.

“He knew he was going to die and was not afraid of dying,” she said.  “He was afraid of how he was going to die.”

“He was afraid of the suffering that accompanies a diagnoses,” Elaine Selsberg said.

Elaine added that if terminally ill patients remain in control, they can enjoy their lives as much as possible without stressing about the suffering that might otherwise happen.

Proponents say that in order to be eligible for a prescription for aid-in-dying medication under the End-of-Life Options Act, people:

  • Must be at least 18 years old
  • Must be in the final stages of a terminal illness
  • Must be of sound mind (people with dementia or Alzheimer’s are ineligible)
  • Must take the medicine by themselves (self-administer)
  • Must make two oral requests, separated by a 15 day waiting period.  A third, written request, signed by at least two witnesses, is also required.

Oregon, Washington and Vermont allow doctors to prescribe end-of-life medication.  California will do so when it's new law takes effect at the beginning of the year.  Montana doesn't have a law allowing doctors to prescribe end of life medication, but a court has ruled that if charged, a doctor can use the patient's request as a defense.

Julie Selsberg said if her father were still alive, "he’d tell Colorado lawmakers to show mercy on the terminally ill."