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April 10, 2012

"Death With Dignity" Legislation Alive Again

What do tanning beds and physician-assisted death have in common?

Photo 1We're about to find out.

In a surprise move Tuesday, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee found a way to advance right-to-die legislation that until today appeared dead. Using a procedural move, the committee attached a right-to-die provision to a bill regulating tanning salons. The amendment would make it legal for terminally-ill Vermonters with fewer than six months to live to request a fatal dose of medication.

Whether it survives to get a floor vote — as soon as Thursday — hinges on whether the "death with dignity" legislation is deemed germane to the tanning bill. If Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who presides over the Senate, deems that it is, the vote can go forward. If he doesn't, the assisted-death language will be stripped from the bill.

Sen. Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden), who engineered Tuesday's vote on the bill, says she is confident she can defend the germane-ness of the legislation. The tanning bed bill deals with cancer, she says. And research from Oregon, where right-to-die is established law, shows that some 80 percent of patients who choose to end their lives have terminal cancer.

If that sounds like a bit of a stretch to you, it apparently does to Scott as well. The lite guv told the Burlington Free Press that the issues don't seem particularly germane to each other. Senate President John Campbell agrees, and told Seven Days that he's "sure someone will challenge it."

Advocates of right-to-die legislation mounted an aggressive campaign to pass it this year. Gov. Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith support it, but Campbell, who is Catholic, does not. After an emotional day of testimony on the bill last month, Campbell and Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who opposes the bill on conscience, said the bill would not move forward.

Miller (pictured at left in photo) is retiring from the Legislature at the end of this term, and said she wanted to see a vote on an issue she's worked 10 years to pass.

The vote in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee was 3-2. Miller, Claire Ayer (D-Addison) and Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) voted in favor, and Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) and Campbell (D-Windsor) voted against. Sen. Sally Fox (D-Chittenden) was absent.

Campbell says it became "clear" to him that someone was going to move the bill forward, "but I certainly didn't think it would be on the committee I'm temporarily sitting on." Campbell doesn't believe right-to-die would have the votes to pass the Senate; he predicted the supporters are still two or three votes short.

Adam Necrason, a lobbyist for the group Patient Choices at End of Life Vermont, said that supporters "continue to see a path to passage.

"This is a bill that's widely supported by Vermonters and there is a lot of grassroots support," he said.

Miller says the legislation is identical to the language proposed at the start of 2011, plus an added section saying that to be eligible to use the law, a patient must be in hospice care or have had a palliative care consultation.

Miller acknowledged that the legislation's path to the floor is "not usual. But we feel strongly that enough people want to see this come to the floor to make these moves necessary at this time.

"For me, I'm leaving this year," Miller adds. "So I had an extra push to want to see it pass on the floor. It's something we've been discussing since the beginning of the session, so to go through the whole discussion again was of no value."

If the amendment is deemed not germane, the Senate can make it germane on a vote of three-fourths of the senators.

"This is a process that we don't know the outcome," Miller says. "But we wanted the bill to move this year. We feel it's a very close vote on the floor."

Photo courtesy of Amy Shollenberger

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