Senate changes end-of-life bill, then moves it forward
Written by Terri Hallenbeck Free Press Staff Writer
Feb. 13 burlingtonfreepress.com
MONTPELIER —Another day, another vote —and a very different outcome.
In a dramatic shift, the Vermont Senate voted 16-15 on Wednesday to significantly alter an end-of-life bill that had won support Tuesday. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott cast the deciding vote to change the bill, breaking a 15-15 tie.
The move upset supporters of the original measure and left opponents relieved.
“I’m disappointed,” said Senate Health &Welfare Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the lead supporter of the original bill, which would have allowed doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients who requested it. But, she added, “It’s not over. It’ll move to the House.”
By a bare majority, the Senate voted to replace the original bill with an amendment that simply grants doctors and family members immunity from criminal or civil action if they participate while a terminally ill patient self-administers a lethal dose of medication. The measure would require the doctor to warn a patient that the medicine could prove lethal if taken at a certain dose.
“It is more or less what goes on right now,” said Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, who authored the amendment with Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington. They won over the support of all 13 senators who had voted against the original bill Tuesday.
Galbraith said he was seeking a way to meet the needs of supporters and of opponents of the original bill.
“Proponents want to have choice at the end of life,” he said. “Opponents were concerned about a state-prescribed process for suicide.”
By granting doctors and families immunity, the amendment allows terminally ill patients to hasten their own deaths while surrounded by family, Galbraith said, but he argued that it leaves the process up to the doctor and the patient without involving the state, as the original bill would have done with a series of requirements between doctor and patient.
Some opponents of the original bill, however, simply saw the amendment as a chance to defeat that bill after having failed to do so Tuesday. In closed-door meetings before Wednesday afternoon’s Senate session, the bill’s opponents agreed that supporting the amendment was the best they could do.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, a leading opponent of the original bill, acknowledged that on the Senate floor.
“I recognize this amendment may not be perfect,” Sears said. “This is my best alternative.”
Galbraith argued it was not a defeat of the original bill but a new way to accomplish the proponents’ goal.
“There is a lot in the bill as amended that does what they want to do,” Galbraith said. “I support end-of-life choice. This is not a defeat for choice.”
Supporters of the original bill disagreed. “We voted for a bill that’s useless,” Ayer said, arguing that her bill would have started a conversation between patients and doctors about end-of-life care, while Galbraith’s keeps the conversation hushed. “That bill is keeping it on a wink-wink, nod-nod,” she said.
Question of safeguards
She and other supporters of the original bill grilled Galbraith on his amendment, arguing that it offered none of the safeguards the original did to make sure patients weren’t pressured into seeking lethal doses and were advised about the availability of hospice care.
“This takes away all the safeguards for the patients,” Ayer said. “This is not good for patients. The people we really need to protect are dying patients, not doctors.”
Others argued that the amendment, which Galbraith produced late Tuesday, hadn’t been vetted by lawyers, doctors, advocates for the disabled and others.
“Does immunity from liability include gross negligence?” Sen. Sally Fox, D-Chittenden, asked Galbraith.
“It’s certainly not the intent,” Galbraith said after a pause.
The revised bill is up for another Senate vote Thursday. The revision could see further changes in advance of that vote, but even some supporters of the original bill agreed to let it move forward rather than kill the new version.
Ayer was among them, saying she wanted the House to have its chance at the bill. In the hallway after the vote, she told a small group of supporters of the original bill not to lose faith, and that the House could rewrite the bill.
Dick Walters of Shelburne, president of Patient Choices Vermont, has been advocating for the measure for 10 years. “This is not the end,” he said, anticipating that the House will act on a bill this session.
Senators debated the issue for more than three hours Wednesday afternoon. After about two hours, tensions started running strong as both sides knew the score.
A rarely enforced or needed rule limiting senators to speaking two times on a bill was raised, and senators voted 23-7 to allow Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, to speak a third time. Twice, senators voted against taking a break to allow senators to confer.
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said Gov. Peter Shumlin called her into his office during the debate to try to persuade her to support the original bill, not the amendment. She didn’t acquiesce, though she told senators on the floor that she had some concerns with the amendment. She questioned whether making doctors immune from prosecution as part of state law was “muddying waters.”
Sears said he expects his Senate Judiciary Committee to consider the bill before the Senate vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 651-4887 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/terrivt.