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Maine Hospitals Are Tasked With Figuring Out How To Implement The State's Death With Dignity Law

Elaine Thompson
AP Images

Maine's new Death with Dignity law went into effect last fall, but some hospitals have delayed participation in the system it created. Now some Maine hospital systems have policies in place that allow physicians and other medical staff to take part.

Maine's Death with Dignity law allows terminally ill patients with six months to live to request life-ending medication. Patients must make both oral and written requests over at least a 15 day time period, be examined by two physicians, and patients must self-administer the medication. The law went into effect in September, but some health systems have chosen to hold off on participating while they develop guidance policies.

This week, Portland-based MaineHealth and MidCoast Hospital in Brunswick say they have each adopted policies that make participation by physicians and other employees voluntary. MidCoast’s Director of Palliative Care, Dr. Carl Demars, says developing the policy — which is expected to be approved by an internal committee next week — wasn't as challenging as figuring out how to implement it.

"Being able to provide good quality consultation services and inform our providers about all the requirements of the law, that's the more challenging part,” says Demars. “And probably the most challenging part is obtaining the pharmaceuticals that are used across the country in Death with Dignity medications."

A spokesperson for MaineHealth says a committee of physicians and other leaders in the organization created its guidelines, which are intended to respect the rights of all those involved. Other health care systems, including Bangor-based Northern Light Health, Lewiston-based Central Maine Healthcare and MaineGeneral in Augusta, are still developing policies.

Valerie Lovelace of the advocacy organization Maine Death with Dignity says she appreciates that health organizations are taking the time they need, but she's thrilled that MaineHealth and MidCoast have moved forward.

"I think it's amazing. I think it's exactly what we need in our healthcare system that physicians and providers are recognizing there are ways to support patients that make the most meaning for their final days,” Lovelace says. “And to be willing to support patient decisions with Death with Dignity is, I think, the right thing."

Lovelace says she doesn't know how many people have used the law to end their lives, but says that a handful of patients and providers have contacted her for information. She anticipates that about 60 to 70 people per year will ultimately use the process allowed under new law.

Maine is among eight states and Washington, D.C. that have Death with Dignity statutes.

Originally published 3:46 p.m. January 3, 2020