Alberta needs legislation to ensure medically assisted death is accessed equally: advocates

Friends of Medicare is calling on the provincial government to create legislation that would ensure equal access to Medical Assistance In Dying (MAID) at all Alberta hospital facilities.

The not-for-profit organization is concerned that faith-based hospitals, like those run by Covenant Heath, are “preventing the provision of MAID within their publicly-funded facilities,” Friends of Medicare said in a news release.

Medically assisted death became legal in Canada in June 2016.

Supporters say one significant barrier to access is faith-based facilities. Dozens of patients in Alberta have had to be transferred from those centres. Covenant Health has an “ethical and moral opposition to medical assistance in dying” and won’t provide the service in all its facilities, which means patients have to be transferred elsewhere.

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“In some cases, in response to both a patient’s consented request and an external provider arrangement to assume care of the patient, this may require safe and timely transfer of the patient and their records to a non-objecting institution for continued exploratory discussion and assessment,” the Covenant Health policy states.

Several media reports have surfaced recently detailing the struggle Alberta patients face trying to access MAID at Covenant Health hospitals.

“Faith-based institutions should not be able to interpret the law to the point where those Albertans who are seeking a perfectly legal public medical service are impeded from having equitable access,” said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare.

Doreen Nowicki, an Edmonton woman in pallative care with ALS, was forced to have her assisted death assessment in a wheelchair on the sidewalk across from the hospital after the Catholic-run Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre suddenly withdrew permission for the meeting to happen on-site.

“She didn’t know why it was happening and it was just a real shock to her — why she was out on that busy street with the assessor trying to ask her questions and having cars going by and people going by,” her husband Terry said.

“This should not happen to anybody.”

“These recent stories sadly point to the undue pain and suffering to these patients who may not have had the option but to be placed in these facilities,” Azocar said.

“Covenant Health provides the bulk of palliative care in this province, and the transfer of patients from institutions during this very private, personal and painful moment in patients’ lives is a difficult problem which must be resolved.”

June 2016: Last month, an Edmonton judge granted John Tuckwell the right to a physician-assisted death. The former government spokesperson – diagnosed with ALS in 2012 – explains what the right to end his life on his own terms means. Su-Ling Goh reports.

The group is calling on the Alberta government and Alberta Health Services to take a clear position and establish legislation that will address unequal access and various interpretations of the federal law.

“Albertans need a position and legislation that is humane and follows the intent of the federal legislation,” Azocar said.

According to the group Dying with Dignity Canada, more than 70 people have been moved from Covenant Health facilities since 2016 in order to receive medical assistance in dying.

Friends of Medicare says the federal legislation doesn’t address how provinces implement health services. Therefore, the group says provinces and regional health authorities must create their own legislation “to close interpretive gaps and ensure appropriate access to care.”

Physicians have the right to opt-out of providing MAID for moral or religious reasons, but they must make referrals that ensure patients can access the service elsewhere.

“In our public health care system, institutions who are in receipt of public funding should also have a responsibility to ensure that all Albertans receive the same level of care and service,” Azocar said.

July 2016: John Tuckwell, the first Edmontonian to be granted a medically assisted death, passed away of natural causes Wednesday morning. Su-Ling Goh has more.

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