Gov. Phil Scott signed S.74 into law Wednesday, amending Vermont’s medical-aid-in-dying statute. Advocates for the changes said S.74 would make the medical-aid-in-dying process more accessible for terminally ill Vermonters.
Vermont’s medical-aid-in-dying law has been in effect since 2013. It set up a multi-step process to request a life-ending prescription for any patient with a prognosis of six months or less to live.
Under the original law, the patient had to make two in-person requests to a prescribing physician, visit another consulting physician in person and submit a written request.
After all these steps were completed, the patient had to wait an additional 48 hours to obtain a prescription.
With S.74, patients will now be able to request the prescription using telemedicine. S.74 also got rid of the final 48-hour waiting period.
It also adds explicit legal immunity for all licensed health care workers involved in the process, including the pharmacist who fills the prescription.
The state attorney general previously said a pharmacist would be protected from liability, even though that immunity was not explicitly codified in law.
From 2013 — when the original law was enacted — through June 2021, 116 Vermonters used the law to end their lives, according to data collected by the Vermont Department of Health.
Advocates for S.74 said requiring patients to make requests in person caused unnecessary suffering, as some patients had to drive hours in severe pain to see their prescribing physicians.
Former Vermont House majority leader Willem Jewett, who died in January using the law, advocated for S.74. In an interview with VTDigger a few days before his death, he said he found the restrictions in the medical-aid-in-dying process, such as the 48-hour waiting period, to be obstructive and “completely meaningless.”
“Willem would be so happy. That’s what I want to say,” Ellen McKay Jewett, his wife, said on Wednesday after learning S.74 had been signed into law. “These are never easy decisions, ever. And the fact that this will give people the chance to have the kind of graceful, calm death that he had is really important.”
Jewett was diagnosed with mucosal melanoma, a cancer of the mucosal membrane, in summer 2020. After multiple rounds of chemotherapy, immunotherapies and radiation, he began the medical-aid-in-dying request process in December 2021.
“What I told them was, whether I do it or not, that’s up to me,” he said. “But I want to have the ability to control that last decision.”
Jewett died at home in Ripton on Jan. 12 surrounded by friends and family.
McKay Jewett continued to advocate for S.74 in the months after her husband’s death, testifying before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and the House Human Services Committee.
“He was just a warrior,” she said of Jewett. “It seems sad in a way that you have to be a warrior for this kind of thing, but man, did it ever make a difference for him. And it will make a big difference for a whole lot of other people, so I’m grateful.”
As the bill progressed from the Senate into the House, some lawmakers expressed discomfort with patients going through the request process entirely over telemedicine.
Before the bill passed the House, Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, offered an amendment to require some kind of in-person interaction with a health care provider during the request process. Donahue said this would be to ensure the patient was free from coercion.
The House rejected Donahue’s amendment 98-41, and passed the bill.
Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, the organization that won passage of Vermont’s original aid-in-dying law, said she had worried Gov. Phil Scott would veto the bill and was grateful to hear it was now law.
“I would like to express gratitude on behalf of all Vermonters who so highly value the availability of medical aid in dying, and appreciate the improvements that the Legislature and the governor approved today,” Walkerman said. “These improvements will really help alleviate suffering toward the end of life, and make the process of medical aid in dying more compassionate.”
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