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California Issues First Assisted Suicide Report

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June 29, 2017

In the first seven months after California’s new Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) law went into effect 111 Californians legally committed suicide with state approval.

The first annual report by the California Department of Public Health shows that 191 people received lethal prescriptions from doctors between June 9, 2016 and Dec. 31, from 173 physicians.

Of the people who received the prescriptions, 111 died using the drugs. Another 21 died without taking the prescriptions. Status of the remaining 59 was not reported.  Also not reported, but would be important is the disposition of the lethal drugs not used by the 21 who died naturally and the 59 who have chosen not to report.  

Of the people who died with the assistance of doctors, nearly 90 percent were older than 60, and nearly 60 percent were suffering from cancer. Some 90 percent were white and 54 percent were female.  Another statistic that would be helpful is to know how many requesting the lethal drugs have been offered and use psychological assessment or services.   Depression and mental distress are a natural part of terminal conditions and requests for death.

Virtually all 111 had health insurance.

That is an ominous aspect of the state’s death med legalization, since it gives insurance programs, including the state of California which offers physician assisted suicide as a Medi Cal benefit, the opportunity to cut their costs when a patient chooses death meds rather than continue their medical care. 

The State of California paid for four Medi-Cal recipients to receive the legal drugs, allowing it to save money as well. In fact, the Governor increased the amount available for lethal drug prescriptions.  Since those on Medi-Cal who request assisted suicide also get access to second opinions and psychiatric evaluations (something not covered by the PAS law) the option can appear attractive to some terminally ill Medi-Cal recipients who aren’t normally allowed such treatment.

If medical insurance providers and Medi-Cal agree to help a member end their life quickly, it cuts the insurance providers expenditures for longer, more extensive life-protecting care.

A Reno (NV) doctor extensively involved in late-in-life care warned the Nevada Legislature recently that two of his California patients had been refused care by their insurance companies, yet the companies had advised the patients that they would pay for death meds!

Catholic teaching is that all human life is sacred and should be protected from birth to natural death.  We are called to accompany each other and the caregivers during chronic and terminal illnesses.   

Suicide is a widespread problem throughout the United States. More than 44,000 people end their lives each year, and twice as many die by suicide than by gunfire. About one in 10 of those who attempt to end their own life are successful.

In California, 4,167 died by suicide in 2105.

California’s legalization of assisted suicide is likely to increase the problem of assisted suicide, and Californians can expect efforts to broaden the option by such methods as allowing someone else to authorize or request assisted-suicide for an incapacitated patient.

In Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1997, the legislature this year barely halted an expansion that would have allowed people to be put to death without their direct consent. The measure would have allowed a surrogate to authorize the killing of a person who earlier had requested death med authorization but subsequently lost the capability to make that decision, most commonly from loss of consciousness or dementia. The Oregon measure would have enabled a surrogate to authorize the death med for the incapable person.

For more information on Catholic teaching at the end of life, visit our webpage – Embracing Our Dying.