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Coloradans Face Challenges Accessing Medical Aid in Dying Law

Melissa Brenkert watched her sister suffer body-wracking seizures before dying of cancer and now advocates for broader access to Colorado's new medical aid-in-dying law. (Joe Mahoney for The Colorado Trust)
Melissa Brenkert watched her sister suffer body-wracking seizures before dying of cancer and now advocates for broader access to Colorado's new medical aid-in-dying law. (Joe Mahoney for The Colorado Trust)
February 16, 2017

DENVER – When Colorado passed a new medical aid-in-dying law last November, two-thirds of voters agreed that people with terminal illnesses should have the legal option to take prescribed life-ending medicines.

But for many Coloradans that option remains off the table, due to lack of coverage or willing providers, or both.

The group Compassion and Choices has launched a campaign to make sure all Coloradans can access the new law.

Kat West, the group’s national director of policy and programs, says one of the biggest challenges is making sure members of the public, and especially doctors, know how the law works.

"So that when their patients ask about this end-of-life option, and they will, that they are prepared and they are competent around medical aid-in-dying," she states.

Significant obstacles remain. The cost of Seconal, a preferred end-of-life medicine, doubled at many pharmacies after being acquired by Valeant Pharmaceuticals. Faith-based Centura Health and SCL Health hospitals, and Colorado's largest for-profit chain HealthONE, have opted not to participate in the new law.

Denver Health relies heavily on Medicaid and Medicare funds that can't be used for aid-in-dying, but hopes to opt in by summer.

Insurers Kaiser Permanente, UnitedHealthcare and Anthem are still working on policies.

West surveyed communities three years ago in Oregon, which enacted its medical aid-in-dying legislation in 1997. She found for doctors and patients not educated and empowered to use the law, access was limited, and low-income people had the hardest time getting care.

"If you were lucky enough – or if you, you know, have enough perseverance or enough of an advocate, maybe in a family member – you might get access to the law," she states.

Melissa Brenkert of Littleton could only watch as her sister suffered body-wracking seizures before dying in Texas, which, like most states, has no medical aid-in-dying option.

She says ultimately, a person should have the right to decide what happens in the last chapter of his or her life.

"Those decisions shouldn't be made for you by your doctor, by your government, by the pharmaceutical company, by your family,” Brenkert stresses. “It is an incredibly personal choice, and one that needs to be respected."

This story was produced with original reporting from Michael Booth for The Colorado Trust.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO