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‘Death with dignity’ at WGH

“Death with dignity” will be available at Whidbey General Hospital if a planning process now under way is implemented.

Washington state’s Death with Dignity Act takes effect tomorrow, March 5, allowing doctors to provide terminally ill patients with lethal prescriptions under certain conditions.

The voter-approved law, also known as Initiative 1000, passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote Nov. 4, making Washington the second state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Island County voters supported the measure.

The initiative protects doctors from prosecution under a state law that forbids anyone to aid in a suicide attempt.

Initiative 1000, modeled after Oregon’s decade-old, voter-approved Death with Dignity Act, requires that the patient be competent, have a life expectancy of six-months or less and the ability to self-administer the lethal medication.

Not all hospitals are required to comply with the initiative. The law requires all hospitals to notify the state Center for Health Statistics if they plan to opt out of the Death with Dignity Act by tomorrow.

Whidbey General Hospital is not one of those that will be opting out, said Judy Moore, director of Home and Health Care Services and co-chair of the clinical ethics committee.

In Snohomish County, only one of its four hospitals plans to participate in the Death with Dignity process, according to a report in The Herald of Everett.

In Skagit County, United General Hospital’s board in Sedro-Woolley has voted to comply with the initiative, according to the Skagit Valley Herald. Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon is reviewing the policy, and Island Hospital in Anacortes will approve its policy soon.

A full list of participating hospitals will be available after the Nov. 5 deadline.

But just because a facility chooses to comply with the initiative, doesn’t mean that all the care providers are required to practice under the Death With Dignity Act. Ultimately, each care provider must decide if they can write or fill the lethal prescription, Moore said.

The Washington State Department of Health adopted a set of rules Feb. 20 that describes doctors’ responsibilities, which include collecting information and setting witness qualifications. The rules also clarify definitions, reporting requirements for health care providers, and confidentiality of the information collected, according to a WSDH press release.

“There’s a lot of safeguards built into how it works,” Moore said.

The Whidbey General Hospital Ethics Committee is currently drafting a Death with Dignity policy.

“Our first priority is education,” Moore explained, adding the hospital’s official Death with Dignity policy will ensue, followed by the program.

The draft must be authorized by the hospital administration and approved by the medical staff before it goes into effect, Moore said.

By next week, Moore hopes to have a brief informational sheet available to physicians, adding that the new rules also involve pharmacists.

“Our first responsibility is to get our staff up to speed,” she said. “It’s a lot of learning.”

Policy aside, the lethal medications are uncommon among Washington pharmacies.

“Where are those resources going to be?” Moore asked. “The medicines aren’t ones that are normally stocked.”

Moore doesn’t expect an onslaught of inquiries when the act goes into effect Thursday.

“I think everyone is a little bit nervous about this,” Moore said. “It’s in opposition to what doctors have been fundamentally practicing for all these years.”

“All the processes and learning that Oregon went through has served us well,” Moore said. “One thing that the Oregon experience tells us is that we are not talking about a large number of people.”

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