House Passes End-Of-Life Bill; Senate Deal Eyed

May 1, 2013

The Vermont House has approved a bill that allows terminally ill patients to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs.

The final vote Wednesday was 81-64.

The end of life bill approved by the House is vastly different from the one passed by the Senate.  The focus now shifts to a reaching a deal that would avoid deadlock at the end of the legislative session.

The House debate stretched on for hours, but the end of life bill cleared numerous attempts to weaken it or delay it.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, moved to end debate and put an advisory question on the ballot next November. He argued voters should be allowed to have a direct say.

“And I think this is an opportunity with a bill that is very different than all the other bills out there… For once in 35 years, for us to say to the voters of Vermont, ‘it’s time for us to hear from you,’” he said.

Wright’s amendment was defeated, and it was clear throughout the day that supporters held onto a strong core of votes needed for passage.

The House bill, modeled on a law in Oregon, sets up a detailed procedure to ensure that patients who have just six months to live are mentally competent and have asked for the drugs willingly.

The Senate version is very different. It simply protects physicians and family members from criminal liability if they prescribe medication that patients could later use to end their life. The philosophical divide between the two versions is whether the government should be involved at all in end-of-life decisions.

So the question is will a deeply divided Senate – it was split 15 to 15 on a bill very similar to the House version – be able to reach a deal.

The pressure is on those who may be swing votes.

Sen. Don Collins, D-Franklin, was one of the last in the Senate to make up his mind to support the more comprehensive version of the legislation. Collins said he hopes at least one of the 15 senators who voted against the bill will have a change of heart.

“So what I see happening is that people are talking to colleagues to see if there is enough difference in the bill that comes over from the other body to change their mind, or if new information has arisen,” he said.

Collins is now part of a group that’s working to get something like the more detailed House bill approved.

“So I’ve been having informal chats – as other people have, I’m sure I’m not the only one doing it,” he said. “But I’m doing it because I moved from not knowing exactly what I was going to do, to saying: ‘Who am I as a government official to tell somebody they can’t make a choice?’”  

A possible swing vote in the Senate is Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington. He said he remains open to moving toward a compromise. And he said that will happen only if the Senate adopts the House version, and proposes to amend it to move it closer to what the Senate adopted.

“But if that doesn’t happen, I don’t see the 15 moving. I could be wrong,” he said. “But I don’t see any evidence that it’s going to be anything other than a replay of what happened in February.”

Usually when the two chambers disagree, a conference committee is appointed to iron out the differences. But in this case, the goal of the bill’s supporters is to keep it out of a conference committee between the House and Senate. That’s because two of the three people who appoint the Senate conferees are opposed to the bill, and it could die there as the legislative clock runs out.

“If it goes to conference, that’s bad news for the bill,” Hartwell said. “So the proponents should be amenable to doing what’s reasonably necessary to keep it out of the committee of conference.”

One ardent opponent of the bill is Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington. He said supporters of the bill have taken out ads targeting the swing votes in the Senate.

“They’re ramping up the pressure,” he said. “But we’ll see, this is a democratic process, and if they get 16 votes to concur with the House proposal, there won’t be a conference committee.”

Senate President John Campbell said he’s asked the Senate’s lawyer to research how the bill can be changed and sent back to the House, outside the conference committee process.