Apr 24, 2023 - Health

New Washington law makes medically assisted death easier to access

Illustration of a collage of hands holding and a bouquet of flowers behind a curtain.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

A new Washington law aims to make it easier for patients to access aid-in-dying services under the state's Death with Dignity Act.

Driving the news: A measure Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law earlier this month will cut down the wait time between when patients first ask for life-ending medication and when they can receive it.

  • The new law also will let more kinds of health care providers sign off on requests for a medically assisted death, and allow the necessary drugs to be mailed to patients instead of picked up in person.

Why it matters: Family members of people who have had terminal illnesses say the current requirements can be a barrier to patients ending their lives on their terms, which was one of the goals of the 2008 law.

Others said the law's requirements have acted as important safeguards to make sure people are truly ready to die.

Zoom out: Ten states plus Washington, D.C. have laws allowing medically assisted death, according to Compassion and Choices, a nonprofit group that supports access to aid in dying services.

  • Lawmakers in Massachusetts are once again considering the latest measure introduced there this year.

Catch up quick: Under Washington's voter-approved Death with Dignity law, patients qualify for physician-assisted death if they are terminally ill and have an estimated six months or less left to live.

  • To receive the drugs needed to end their lives, patients must ask three times — once in writing, and twice orally, with 15 days between the two oral requests.
  • Two doctors have to affirm the patients' prognosis and that they are acting voluntarily.

Details: Washington's new law will cut the required waiting time between patients' oral requests to seven days.

  • It also will allow physician assistants and advanced nurse practitioners to be one of the medical providers who sign off on the procedure, and eliminates a two-day waiting period for prescribing the drugs.

What they're saying: Supporters of changing the law told a House panel last month that some patients who seek physician-assisted death are dying before they can complete the 15-day waiting period, or have become physically incapable of making another request before that timeline has expired.

  • "Too many families, too many patients have faced great anguish and great pain in being unable to carry out their end-of-life wishes as the initiative intended," state Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver) said during a Senate floor speech.

The other side: Opponents expressed concerns that people may choose to end their lives to avoid being a burden to family members, or because they are being coerced.

  • "If it's going to change, shouldn't it really be changed by another initiative?" state Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) asked during debate on the Senate floor. "Shouldn't we honor what the people have said?"

What's next: The update to Washington's law takes effect on July 23.

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