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Vermont House Passes Aid-in-Dying Bill

Montpelier — The Vermont House voted last evening to make the state the first in the country to legislate allowing physicians to provide lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it.

By a 75-65 roll call vote, the House concurred with a Senate version of the bill that largely copies a law passed by Oregon voters in 1997 for three years and then shifts to a system with less government monitoring.

The vote was a reversal of the defeat of similar legislation in the House in 2007 and marked the first time any legislature in the country had seen such a measure all the way to passage.

It now goes to the desk of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has said he is a strong supporter.

“It’s an important step for terminally ill Vermont patients,” Dick Walters, president of Patient Choices-Vermont, said after the vote. “It’s a big step forward for the region and for the country as a whole.”

The bill’s passage likely will be seen as the most historic event of the 2013 legislation session, which is expected to wrap up today.

If Shumlin signs the bill, Vermont would become the fourth state — the first east of the Mississippi — to allow doctors to help patients die by writing a prescription for a lethal dose of medication.

Oregon passed the first-in-the-nation law by referendum in 1997; Washington state followed suit in 2006 and a court order in Montana made it legal in that state.

Debate included two packed Statehouse hearings in which supporters and opponents took turns voicing their views on the legislation, sometimes dubbed “death with dignity” by backers and “physician-assisted suicide” by opponents.

Critics continued to voice their concerns during House debate yesterday, while supporters, who knew they had the votes to pass the bill, were more muted.

“There is potential here for abuse of the disabled,” said Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia, “especially disabled elders,” she said. “This is not medical care. It is the opposite.”

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, watched the debate from the House gallery.

“This bill makes no judgment about the value of anybody’s life,” he said after the vote. “It makes a very positive judgment about the value of personal freedom and the right to make one’s own choices.”

The House vote was to concur with a hybrid bill passed by the Senate. For the first three years, Vermont’s law would closely follow the Oregon model, which allows for several safeguards, including requirements that patients state three times — once in writing — that they wish to die. Others include a concurring opinion from a second doctor that a patient has less than six months to live and a finding that the patient is of sound mind.

After July 1, 2016, Vermont would move to a model pushed by some senators who complained of too much government intervention in the Oregon system.

Those changes would require less monitoring and reporting by physicians. However, there’s widespread expectation that lawmakers may push to eliminate the changes set to take effect in 2016, leaving an Oregon-style law in place.