California voters passed a law two years ago that allows terminally ill people to take lethal drugs to end their lives, but controversy is growing over a newer rule that effectively bans that option in the state’s eight veterans homes.
Proponents of medical aid-in-dying and residents of the Veterans Home of California-Yountville — the largest in the nation — are protesting a regulation passed last year by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, or CalVet, that requires that anyone living in the facilities must be discharged if they intend to use the law.
That’s a position shared by most — but not all — states where aid-in-dying is allowed. As more U.S. jurisdictions consider whether to legalize the practice, the status of terminally ill veterans living in state-run homes will loom large.
“It would be a terrible hardship, because I have no place to go,” said Bob Sloan, 73, who suffers from congestive heart failure and other serious cardiac problems. He said he intends to seek medical aid-in-dying if doctors certify he has six months or less to live.
“I’m not going to be a vegetable,” said Sloan, a Vietnam War-era veteran who moved into the Yountville center five years ago. “I’m not going to end up living in so much pain it’s unbearable.”
A CalVet official said the agency adopted the rule to avoid violating a federal statute that prohibits using U.S. government resources for physician-assisted death. Otherwise, the agency would jeopardize nearly $68 million in federal funds that helps run the facilities, said June Iljana, CalVet’s deputy secretary of communications.
California is not alone. Three other states where aid-in-dying is legal — Oregon, Colorado and Vermont — all prohibit use of lethal medications in state-run veterans homes.
In Montana, where aid-in-dying is allowed under a state Supreme Court ruling, officials didn’t respond to multiple requests about whether veterans would be able to use the law in the residences. However, Dr. Eric Kress, a Missoula physician who prescribes the lethal medication, says he has transferred patients to hospice, to relatives’ homes, even to extended-stay hotels to avoid conflict.
In Washington, D.C., where an aid-in-dying law took effect last summer, the Armed Forces Retirement Home won’t assist patients in any way. Those who wish to use the law would be referred to an ethics committee for individual consideration, spokesman Christopher Kelly said in an email.
Only Washington state has a policy that allows veterans to remain in government-run residences if they intend to ingest lethal medications.. At least one veteran has died in a state-run home using that law, said Heidi Audette, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs.
Paul Sherbo, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the choice is up to the states.
“VA does not mandate how states comply with federal law,” Sherbo said in an email. “There are a number of ways individual states can choose to handle such situations and still be in compliance.”
To date, none of the 2,400 residents of California’s veterans homes has formally requested medical aid-in-dying, said Iljana. That includes the more than 900 residents of the Yountville center, located about 60 miles north of San Francisco.