MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Senate on Thursday passed a stripped-down version of a bill that would let doctors help terminally ill patients die, relieving health workers and family members of criminal or civil liability but removing several patient protections that were in the original version of the bill.
The final vote was 22-8.
The measure now moves to the House, which is expected to redraft it into a version much closer to the original bill, which was modeled on the Death With Dignity Act that Oregon has had in place for 15 years. Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday said he would support that redrafting effort.
Differences between House and Senate versions then would be worked out in a conference committee.
Thursday’s passage came after three days of impassioned debate in the Senate on whether Vermont should become the first state to legislate such a measure. Oregon and Washington passed assisted-death laws by referendum. Several senators told of their own loved-ones’ deaths
"This ought to be something between a patient and her doctor, and a patient at the end of life ought to have that choice," said Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, a key author of the legislation that passed Thursday.
The version the Senate agreed to actually was an amended form of a plan Galbraith had proposed a day earlier that he said was aimed at limiting state involvement in the care of terminal patients, at the same time relieving those involved in managing such a patient’s final days any threat of being prosecuted, sued or disciplined by regulators.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison and the leading proponent of the original bill, rebutted the argument that the state should not be involved in health care decisions, saying government is already a pervasive regulator of medicine.
Ayer spent much of her time during three days of Senate debate on her feat defending the original bill that passed out of her committee on a 5-0 vote. She said it was based on an "Oregon recipe" that had been tested for 15 years and found to work well there.
The underlying bill contained a series of safeguards to ensure the patient had a sound mind and was not under any undue pressure when making the decision to take a lethal dose of medication. The patient had to make the request for the medication three times, once in writing. Two doctors had to agree on a prognosis of less than six months to live.
The bill that passed was reduced from 22 pages in length to one.
Its key sections say a health professional "shall not be subject to criminal or civil liability or professional disciplinary action if the patient self-administers more than a prescribed dose of the medication and dies as a result." The same protection would apply to anyone else present at the time of death.