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The Best Way to Access California’s End of Life Option Act

By Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee

Thanks to California’s End of Life Option Act law taking effect today, terminally ill adults in California with less than six months to live finally have the option to ask their doctor for prescription medication they can decide to take, so they can die peacefully in their sleep, if their suffering becomes unbearable. The process of accessing the law takes time, so here are a few tips to make the process as efficient as possible.

Compassion & Choices has decades of experience helping to implement similar laws in Oregon (1997), Washington (2008), Montana (2009) and Vermont (2013). Based on this experience, we recommend terminally ill Californians interested in the new law consult with their personal doctor soon about their full range of end-of-life care options. Under any circumstances, your doctor needs to understand your personal goals, preference and values. If you want the option of medical aid in dying, we recommend you ask your doctor if she or he would be willing to write a prescription for you if you qualify under the law. If your doctor is unwilling to do so, ask for a referral to another doctor who can take over primary responsibility for your health care and treatment of your terminal disease, and who would be willing evaluate your request in an unbiased way and write a prescription if you qualify.

It is important to note the law requires any physician who writes an aid-in-dying prescription to be the licensed physician “who has primary responsibility for the health care of an individual and treatment of the individual’s terminal disease.” A doctor who is not providing medical care for you and treating your terminal illness is not authorized to provide medical aid in dying. In addition, the second physician, who confirms the terminal diagnosis, must be a licensed physician who is qualified by specialty or experience to confirm a professional diagnosis and prognosis about an individual’s terminal illness. The law does a good job of balancing the need to ensure that appropriate medical providers evaluate and honor requests for aid in dying, with respect for medical regulatory authorities and standards of care.

We do not recommend seeking out a doctor who “specializes” in writing aid-in-dying prescriptions because she or he is unlikely to meet the definition of a participating physician under the law. The process of getting an aid-in-dying prescription takes at least 15 days, but can take much longer if you waste precious time pursuing a physician who cannot take primary responsibility for your health care and treatment of your terminal disease. Certainly, it’s better to know ahead of time that you have a supportive healthcare system or medical team. For these reasons, we recommend asking your doctor now if she or he supports patient choice. You may also visit our website that provides a list of supportive healthcare systems and facilities in California at www.EndOfLifeOption.org.