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State: 69 received lethal drugs in Colorado aid-in-dying law’s first year

Author: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette - February 2, 2018 - Updated: February 7, 2018

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Denver resident Patti James is pictured at home in Denver’s Grant Ranch neighborhood while discussing her role in advocating for Colorado’s recently passed aid-in-dying law, the End of Life Options Act, or ballot initiative Proposition 106. (Photo by Andy Colwell/Colorado Politics)

Sixty-nine people sought prescriptions to end their lives last year under Colorado’s new aid-in-dying law, and 50 of them reportedly picked up the lethal drugs from a pharmacist.

The figures, released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, offer the first glimpse into how often Coloradans put the new law to use after voters approved the practice in November 2016. And they showed higher demand for the drugs compared to other states’ first years with similar laws.

Four of those prescribed lethal medications died in El Paso County, said Kirk Bol, the state health department’s vital statistics program manager. None were from Teller County.

Still, one glaring statistic remained a mystery Thursday. The number of people who ultimately used the drugs to end their lives is unknown because the state health department is not required to track that. Supporters of the law hailed the report as a sign of the law working as intended, while opponents seized on the fact that doctors routinely failed to submit mandatory paperwork meant to validate that safeguards were taken.

For his part, the state health department’s Bol said the number of prescriptions were expected.

“In short, no red flags here,” Bol said.

The law, which is based off a 20-year-old Oregon law, allows terminally-ill Coloradans with six months or less to live the ability to seek and give themselves a lethal prescription of drugs.

Two physicians must confirm the patient’s terminal prognosis, and they must ensure that the patient’s decision is voluntary. Patients also must be aware of other care and treatment options.

If a physician suspects the patient isn’t mentally capable of making such a decision, then the patient must undergo a psychological evaluation.

Its passage made Colorado the sixth state to allow the practice, and the District of Columbia has since followed suit.

Death certificates were found for 56 of the 69 people who were prescribed the drugs. But it’s unclear how those people died, because the law mandates their death certificates list the underlying medical condition as the cause of death.

Those Coloradans were overwhelmingly white and under hospice care, and they usually died in their own homes.

Two-thirds of them lived in the Denver metro area, and slightly less than half of them were married. Slightly more than half had some type of college degree.

The youngest person to die after being prescribed the drugs was in their early 40s, and the oldest was in their mid-90s. The median age was 75.

Nearly two-thirds of them had some form of cancer, and most others had Lou Gehrig’s disease, heart disease or chronic lower respiratory disease.

Advocates of the law said the report showed it empowered gravely-ill Coloradans to die a peaceful death on their own terms.

The number of prescriptions written outpaced the expectations of Compassion & Choices, the national organization that rallied the law to passage in Colorado. It expected 55 to 65 scripts.

“This report means that there were terminally ill people who were suffering, and they were able to obtain a prescription, which brought them great comfort and piece of mind,” said Kat West, the organization’s national director of policy and programs.

But Carrie Ann Lucas, a Windsor resident and a board member of the national Not Dead Yet advocacy group, criticized reporting gaps revealed Thursday.

Often, doctors did not follow mandatory reporting requirements when prescribing the lethal drugs, the report showed.

In nine instances, doctors had yet to submit the form attesting that all the proper steps were taken. Some of those reports were more than 30-days past due as of Jan. 24, Bol said.

Also, only about two-thirds of the required written requests by patients were given to the state. And only two-fifths of the consulting physicians’ written confirmations were submitted.

The health department, in releasing the report, reminded doctors to fill out those forms and turn them in. No discipline is planned for doctors who failed to submit the paperwork, according to Mark Salley, a state health department spokesman.

Lucas said those missing reports highlight dangerous weaknesses in the law.

“The so-called safeguards in this law are hollow,” Lucas said. “The reporting is so minimal, there will be no way to determine what abuse is occurring with this law.”

In addition, she said no accounting was given for the drugs that were prescribed, but never used.

“We have lethal doses of drugs just circulating in the community with no accountability to what happens to them,” Lucas said.

West disputed the notion that the missing paperwork was reason for concern.

“Doctors hate paperwork – everyone knows that,” West said. “So whenever there’s this many forms to fill out, sometimes they’re late.”

“Because they didn’t fill out some subsequent forms,” she added, “and they might me a little bit late turning those in, does not mean that all of the steps weren’t followed.”

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette

Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette