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A bill for patients

A legislative proposal aimed at helping the ill is being unfairly portrayed as a right-to-die measure.

August 11, 2008

In the course of treating a patient, there may come a point when the physician says, "I've done all I can. It's out of my hands." The patient may then ask about end-of-life options -- not life-ending options, but end-of-life options, such as palliative care focused on making the patient as comfortable as possible during the final illness.

The physician can respond with descriptions of those types of care and directions on how best to find providers; or with an acknowledgment that such things exist but that they're inadvisable; or with a shrug of the shoulders, a look of disapproval but a referral to someone who will discuss the options with the patient. Or, under the law as it exists today, with stony silence and refusal to allow the patient access to the information.

It's the horror of that last situation, in which medical providers keep patients in the dark about their end-of-life options because of religious or personal convictions, that would be remedied by AB 2747 by Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D-Eureka), which was approved by the chamber earlier this year.

The bill would ensure that patients get the information they need to make decisions about their medical care. In a vacuum, it likely would pass and be signed into law without opposition. But Berg in recent years wrote three unsuccessful bills to allow terminally ill patients access to lethal drugs to end their lives. Some opponents of those bills, who protested that the value society places on terminally ill patients or on life itself would be cheapened by a death-with-dignity law, now oppose this bill as a stealth attempt to reach the same end. It is not.

The Times supported Berg's previous bills, and we continue to believe that patients should have ultimate control over their lives and deaths. But to see AB 2747 as a move toward patient suicide is to ignore the language of the bill. It provides for no new options -- no lethal drugs, no suicide instructions. It requires simply that information be given about care that already is legal. It does not prevent the doctor, nurse or other medical provider from expressing personal disapproval about any option. It allows the provider who wants nothing to do with a particular type of care to not even mention it, but instead refer the patient to someone who will. And there is no new duty to tell anyone anything at all -- unless the patient asks.

The bill would increase a patient's ability to take an active role in his or her care. It would be a shame to keep these improvements off the books because of symbolism inappropriately imposed on it by opponents of a right-to-die measure that isn't even before the Legislature this year. The Senate should pass this bill, and the governor should sign it.

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