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Taxpayers To Cover Assisted Suicide

February 27, 1998

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Oregon taxpayers should help pay for the doctor-assisted suicides of terminally ill poor people, a state panel voted Thursday.

The Health Services Commission decided, 10-1, that delivering lethal doses of prescription drugs should be covered as a ``medical service″ for the state’s 270,000 low-income residents covered under the state’s health plan.

``The most discriminatory thing would be not to give this choice to the poor,″ said commission member Ellen Lowe.

The question had been left unanswered when the nation’s only doctor-assisted suicide law passed in 1994 and was affirmed in 1996.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs at the request of terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live.

Commission chairman Alan Bates said his experience as a family physician convinced him the law is a compassionate policy that eases people’s suffering. He said religious opponents have no right to oppose their moral views on others.

``Physician-assisted suicide has been going on for years. In Oregon, we’re just bringing it out in the open,″ Bates said.

The law’s most outspoken opponent by far was the Oregon Catholic Conference, which contended making taxpayers pay for assisted suicide forces many people to abandon the values of their faith.

``There would be no more tragic discrimination against the poor than to allow them to be killed,″ said conference spokesman Bob Castagna. ``That is the ultimate discrimination.″

At a hearing before commission members voted, some doctors said some poor, distraught terminally ill people could face pressure to choose suicide for lack of money for better medical care.

``In rural communities, neither hospice care nor psychiatric care may be available for miles and miles,″ said Dr. Gregory Hamilton, president of Physicians for Compassionate Care. ``To offer state-funded suicide while failing to offer adequate care is unconscionable.″

Ellie Jenny, representing a group called Not Dead Yet, said state residents may have voted for the law, but they never voted for paying for it.

``There was never any mention in any of the election rhetoric that this would be funded by taxpayer money,″ she said.

The new policy is scheduled to take effect in about two months, but it still must withstand federal scrutiny because Medicaid receives federal matching funds. Congress passed a law in April that forbids federal money from being used to cover doctor-assisted suicide.

But that doesn’t necessarily preclude coverage under the Oregon Health Plan. Abortions can’t be funded with federal dollars, but Oregon covers the service by using only state money.

Most private insurers have said they are prepared to cover the costs of lethal prescriptions. The exceptions include Catholic health plans such as SelectCare and Providence Health Plan.

The law has technically been in effect since last October, but because of strict state confidentiality laws it is impossible to know if anyone has used it. Exactly how much it will cost also has not been determined.

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