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Groups Praise Dismissal of Lawsuit to Undermine Vermont Patient End-of-Life Law

Judge Affirms Doctors Must Advise Dying Patients about All Treatment Options Photo: Monica van de Ven, who utilized Vermont’s Patient Choice at End of Life Act on Jan. 27

Compassion & Choices and Patient Choices Vermont praised a federal judge’s ruling to dismiss a lawsuit brought by religious groups seeking to undermine Vermont’s Patient Choice at End of Life Act (a/k/a Act 39).  The law gives mentally capable, terminally ill adult residents of Vermont the option to get a doctor’s prescription for medication that they can decide to ingest to end their suffering and die peacefully in their sleep.

The Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare and Tennessee-based Christian Medical and Dental Association filed the suit in July against the State of Vermont. The groups claimed Patient’s Bill of Rights for Palliative Care and Pain Management violated their religious rights by requiring doctors to discuss all end-of-life care options with their patients.

In December, U.S. District Court Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford granted a motion by Compassion & Choices, Patient Choices Vermont and two terminally ill Vermonters, Monica van de Ven and Benedict Underhill, to intervene in the case, allowing them to become a party to the lawsuit. David Bassett, Samantak Ghosh, Nina Garcia, and Stephanie Neely of WilmerHale, and Ron Shems of Diamond & Robinson, were co-counsel on behalf of intervenors.

In January, van de Ven died peacefully after taking a doctor’s prescription for aid-in-dying medication. Late yesterday, Judge Crawford dismissed the case. His ruling concluded that two Vermont laws, the Patient’s Bill of Rights for Palliative Care and Pain Management] and Limitation of Medical Malpractice Action Based on Lack of Informed Consent, “continue to govern physicians in all aspects of their care of the terminally ill. Under these provisions, physicians must inform patients about all choices and options relevant to their medical treatment.” [See page 8 of opinion posted here].

“I am only sorry Monica van de Ven is not with us to celebrate this victory that her courageous advocacy made possible,” said Linda Waite-Simpson, Vermont state director for Compassion & Choices. “Her peaceful death illustrates the importance of ensuring physicians respect the law and hold patient’s wishes as a paramount goal.”

“This federal ruling is important because it underscores the importance of putting complete information in the hands of patients so they can make informed decisions consistent with their values,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices.“

“Justice has prevailed in this case for terminally ill Vermonters like Benedict Underhill,” said Betsy Walkerman, President of Patient Choices Vermont. “This ruling reinforces the professional obligation of doctors to have full and open discussions, respond substantively to all questions, and enable patients to make fully informed decisions.”