Analysis: 2017 Nevada Doctor-Prescribed Suicide Bill (SB 261)

This 2017 bill is an attempt by doctor-prescribed suicide activists to transform a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs into a “medical treatment.”  It is patterned after Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.”  This attempt comes at a time when Nevada has the 4th highest suicide rate in the nation and when the state’s seniors have the highest national suicide rate – more than double the national average. [1] More Nevadans die of suicide than from homicide, HIV/AIDS or car crashes.[2]

Under SB 261:

Doctor-prescribed suicide would become a “medical treatment.”

The bill specifically defines “medical treatment” to include “dispensing a controlled substance designed to end the life of a patient.”[3]

This would cause emotional and financial pressure on patients by giving insurance programs the opportunity to cut costs by denying payment for more expensive treatments while approving payment for the less costly prescription for a lethal drug overdose.

This has been documented in Oregon – the state with the law upon which the Nevada bill is based – as well as in California.  The Oregon Health Plan (OHP) has notified some patients that medications prescribed to extend their lives or improve their comfort level would not be covered, but that the OHP would pay for a lethal drug prescription.[4]

Referring to payment for assisted suicide, the Oregon Department of Human Services explains, “Individual insurers determine whether the procedure is covered under their policies, just as they do any other medical procedure.”[5]

In California, after finding that her insurance company would not cover the chemotherapy her doctor had prescribed, a woman asked if assisted suicide was covered under her plan.  She was told, “Yes, we do provide that to our patients, and you would only have to pay $1.20 for the medication. “[6]

California pays for assisted-suicide drugs obtained under the state’s doctor-prescribed suicide law.[7]

If the Nevada bill is approved, will health insurance programs do the right thing – or the cheap thing?

And what will happen to uninsured Nevadans?

An individual with a controllable medical condition could be considered to have a terminal disease, making him or her eligible for doctor-prescribed suicide.

To be eligible for a suicide prescription, a patient is considered to have a terminal condition if the condition is “an incurable and irreversible condition that cannot be cured or modified” and “will, in the opinion of the attending physician, result in death within 6 months.”[8]

There are many conditions (diabetes, certain types of leukemia, disabilities requiring ventilator support, etc.) that, although they cannot be cured or modified, they can be controlled. However, with medical treatment, individuals with those conditions could live for many years.  Yet those individuals would be eligible for doctor-prescribed suicide.

There is documentation that this has occurred under Oregon’s assisted-suicide law.  In official reports from Oregon, diabetes is noted as the underlying terminal condition that made the patient eligible for a lethal prescription.[9]

Why is the definition of “terminal condition” so broad?

Severely depressed or mentally ill patients could receive doctor-prescribed suicide, without having any form of counseling or mental examination.   

Even if the patient is severely depressed or mentally ill, a physician is not required to refer the patient for counseling unless the physician believes that the patient may not have the ability to make, communicate and understand the nature of decisions about his or her health care.[10]

This provision is similar to that contained in Oregon’s law where, in 2014, only 3 of the 155 patients who received lethal prescriptions were referred for a psychological evaluation.[11]  A study about Oregon’s law found that it “may not adequately protect all mentally ill patients.”[12]

“Doctor shopping” could take place until a health care professional can be found to declare that the patient is qualified for the lethal prescription.

If a patient is found to be unable to understand the nature of decisions about health care, the bill does not prohibit a health provider, family member or another person from arranging for the patient to be evaluated by other mental health professionals until one is found who would declare the patient capable of choosing assisted suicide.

This has taken place in Oregon where it has been noted that “a psychological disorder — senility, for example — does not necessarily disqualify a person.”[13]

A woman died of assisted suicide under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” even though she was suffering from early dementia. Her own physician had declined to provide a lethal prescription for her. When counseling to determine her capacity was sought, a psychiatrist determined that she was not eligible for assisted suicide since she was not explicitly pushing for it and her daughter seemed to be coaching her to do so. She was then taken to a psychologist who determined that she was competent but possibly under the influence of her daughter who was “somewhat coercive.”

Finally, she was assessed by a managed care ethicist who determined that she qualified for assisted suicide, and the lethal dose was prescribed.[14]

The required requests could be made by telephone and the written request electronically transmitted or delivered to a physician by a third party. 

The individual is required to make two oral requests and one written request for doctor-prescribed suicide.  However, there is no requirement that the oral requests be made in person. The written request is to be “delivered” to the attending physician.  The method of delivery is not specified.[15]

Family members or health care providers and others could advise, suggest, encourage or exert subtle pressure on vulnerable individuals to request doctor-prescribed suicide.  

The bill states that witnesses to the written request must attest to the fact that the patient “appears to be of sound mind and not under duress, fraud or undue influence.”[16]  However, those words have a narrow legal meaning.  The bill does not prohibit someone from suggesting, advising, or encouraging a patient to request doctor-prescribed suicide.

Since victims of domestic abuse, including elder abuse, are extremely vulnerable to persuasion from their abusers, it takes little imagination to understand how the bill could put abused individuals at risk of being persuaded to request doctor-prescribed suicide.

The written request for doctor-prescribed suicide could be witnessed by someone who would gain financially from the patient’s death.

The written request, which could be signed in the patient’s residence, must be witnessed by two individuals, only one of whom may not be someone who would be entitled to any portion of the patient’s estate.[17]  Thus, one witness may be a potential heir who is encouraging or pressuring the patient to sign the request.  The second witness could be the “best friend” of the potential heir.

This places victims of elder abuse and domestic abuse in great danger since they are unlikely to share their fears with outsiders or to reveal that they are being pressured by family members to “choose” doctor-prescribed suicide.

A person who would benefit financially from the person’s death could pick up and deliver the lethal prescription to the patient.

The drugs can be dispensed to an expressly identified agent of the patient.[18]  A potential heir could encourage the patient to authorize him or her to pick up the drugs for delivery to the patient’s residence.

Individuals could request doctor-prescribed suicide based on the fear of being a burden to others.   

In Oregon’s official report, released in 2017, fear of being a burden on others was given as a reason for requesting lethal drugs by 49% of those who died using that state’s assisted-suicide law.[19]

Physicians would not be required to prescribe the lethal drugs but nurses and pharmacists could be required to facilitate a patient’s death.

The bill states that physicians are not required to prescribe a controlled substance designed to end the life of a patient.[20]  However, the bill does not include a similar protection for pharmacists who could be required to fill the prescription or for nurses who could be required to bring the drugs to a patient.

A health care facility could not prevent deaths from doctor-prescribed suicide on its premises. 

The bill states that the owner or operator of a health care facility may prohibit a physician, psychiatrist or psychologist who is employed by or provides services on the premises from prescribing the lethal drugs or providing a mental evaluation related to the request for the lethal prescription if certain notification is provided.[21]

However, this refers only to performing the duties of the attending physician, the consulting physician or one who would be carrying out the mental evaluation, if performed.  It does not include nurses, pharmacists and other individuals.

Therefore, facilities would not be able to prevent others from bringing a lethal drug prescription to a patient or resident for self-administration on the premises; would not be able to prevent the witnessing of the written requests for doctor-prescribed suicide; would not be able to prohibit a pharmacy on the premises from dispensing the drugs; and would not be able to prevent nurses or other health care providers from bringing the lethal drugs to a patient or resident.

Patients would have no protection once the assisted-suicide prescription is filled. 

Like the Oregon law, the bill only addresses activities taking place up until the prescription is filled.  There are no provisions to insure that the patient is competent at the time the lethal drug overdose is taken or that he or she knowingly and willingly took the drugs.

Due to this lack of protection, the bill would put patients at enormous risk.  For example, someone who would benefit from the individual’s death could trick or even force the person into taking the fatal drugs, and no one would know.

Why aren’t there any safeguards at the most important part of the process – at the time the patient takes the drugs that will cause death?

The death certificate would not reflect the actual cause of death.

The bill requires that the person who signs the death certificate of a “patient who dies after self-administering a controlled substance that is designed to end the life of the patient” shall specify the terminal condition rather than the lethal overdose as the cause of death.[22]

There is an illusion of choice.  Yet, the bill would actually constrict patient choice.

“Choice” is an appealing word, but inequity in health care is a harsh reality.

Under the bill, before writing a prescription for death, a doctor must discuss “all available methods of treating or managing the terminal condition including, without limitation, comfort care, hospice care and pain control.[23]  However, discussing all options does not mean the patient will have the ability to access those options.  It only means the person must be told about them.

Patients may find that their insurance will not cover the “available methods of treating or managing the terminal condition” their doctors informed them about but, instead, will pay for doctor-prescribed suicide as has already happened in Oregon and California.[24]

If doctor-prescribed suicide becomes just another treatment option, and a cheap option at that, the standard of care and provision of health care changes.  There will be less and less focus on extending life and eliminating pain, and more and more focus on the “efficient and inexpensive treatment option” of death.

If doctor-prescribed suicide is legalized in Nevada, it could become the only “medical treatment” to which many people have equal access.  The last to receive health care could be the first to receive doctor-prescribed suicide.
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Note:  Supporters of SB 261 point to Oregon in their claim that there are no problems with the law and that safeguards contained in the law are meticulously followed and monitored.  Yet, in closed-door sessions, those supporters acknowledge that this is not true.  For documented information about this contradiction, see “The Oregon Experience.”[25]
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[1]  Kim Palchikoff, “Nevada’s suicide rate is among the nation’s highest: it doesn’t need to be,” Las Vegas Sun, May 2, 2016.  Available at: https://lasvegassun.com/news/2016/may/02/nevadas-suicide-rate-is-among-the-nations-highest. (Last accessed 3/14/17.)

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Section 27 (9) (b) (2).

[4]  Sue Donaldson James, “Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon, ABC News, August 6, 2008.  Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5517492&page=1. (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[5]  Oregon Dept. of Human Services, “FAQs about the Death with Dignity Act.”  Available at: http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Pages/faqs. aspx (last accessed 12/30/14).

[6]  Bradford Richardson, “Assisted-suicide law prompts insurance company to deny coverage to terminally ill California woman,” Washington Times, October 20, 2016.  Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/20/assisted-suicide-law-prompts-insurance-company-den. (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[7]  Kimberly Leonard, “Californians Can choose to Die – With the Help of Taxpayers,” U.S. News & World Report, March 21, 2016.  Available at: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-03-21/in-california-government-to-pick-up-the-tab-for-death-with-dignity.  (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[8]  Section 10.

[9]  Official report for 2016 deaths under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, Oregon Public Health Division, “Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2016,” pg. 11, fn. 2.  Available at: http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year19.pdf. (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[10]  Section 15 (1) (a) states that, if the physician determines that a patient may not be “competent,” the physician must refer the patient for examination by a psychiatrist or psychiatrist. However, Section 5 defines “competent” as the “ability to make, communicate and understand the nature of decisions concerning his or her health care.”

[11] Official report for 2014 deaths under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, p. 5.  Available at: http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/

year17.pdf.  (Last accessed 3/15/17).

[12] Linda Ganzini, Elizabeth R. Goy, Steven K. Dobscha, “Prevalence of depression and anxiety in patients requesting physicians’ aid in dying: cross sectional survey,” British Medical Journal, Oct. 25, 2008, pp. 973-978.

[13]  “Physician-assisted suicide: A family struggles with the question of whether mom is capable of choosing to die,” Oregonian, February 4, 2015. Available at: http://www.oregonlive.com/health/index.ssf/2015/02/physician-assisted_suicide_a_f.html. (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[14]  Ibid.

[15]  Section 12 (1) (a).

[16]  Section 13  Form of written request – declaration of witnesses.

[17]  Section 12 (1) (b) (2).

[18]  Section 16 (3) (c).

[19]  Official report for 2016 deaths under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, Oregon Public Health Division, “Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2016,” pg. 10.  Available at: http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year19.pdf. (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[20]  Section 25 (1).

[21]  Section 26 (1).

[22]  Section 1 (3).

[23]  Section 14 (3)(b).

[24]  See: Sue Donaldson James, “Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon, ABC News, August 6, 2008.  Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5517492&page=1. (Last accessed 3/15/17.) Also see: Bradford Richardson, “Assisted-suicide law prompts insurance company to deny coverage to terminally ill California woman,” Washington Times, October 20, 2016.  Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/20/assisted-suicide-law-prompts-insurance-company-den. (Last accessed 3/15/17.)

[25]  “The Oregon Experience.” Available at: http://www.patientsrightscouncil.org/site/the-oregon-experience (last accessed 3/15/17.)

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