Oregon's Mistake Costs Lives

(published as a letter to the editor in The Advocate, the official publication of the Idaho State Bar, at pages 16-17, September 2009)

Kenneth Stevens, MD, Sherwood, Oregon

I was disturbed to see that the suicide lobby group, Compassion & Choices, is beginning an attempted indoctrination of your state, to accept assisted suicide as somehow promoting individual rights and “choice.” I have been a cancer doctor in Oregon for more than 40 years. The combination of assisted-suicide legalization and prioritized medical care based on prognosis has created a danger for my patients on the Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid).

The Plan limits medical care and treatment for patients with a likelihood of 5% or less 5-year survival. My patients in that category who have a good chance of living another three years and who want to live, cannot receive surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy to obtain that goal. The Plan guidelines state that the Plan will not cover “chemotherapy or surgical interventions with the primary intent to prolong life or alter disease progression.” The Plan WILL cover the cost of the patient’s suicide.

Under our law, a patient is not supposed to be eligible for voluntary suicide until they are deemed to have six months or less to live. In the cases of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, neither of them had such diagnoses, nor had they asked for suicide. The Plan, nonetheless, offered them suicide. Neither Wagner nor Stroup saw this event as a celebration of their “choice.” Wagner said: “I’m not ready, I’m not ready to die,” They were, regardless, steered to suicide.[*]

In Oregon, the mere presence of legal assisted-suicide steers patients to suicide even when there is not an issue of coverage.
One of my patients was adamant she would use the law. I convinced her to be treated. Ten years later she is thrilled to
be alive. Don’t make Oregon’s mistake.

*  For more information about Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, see Susan Donaldson James, "Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon," ABC News, Aug. 6, 2008, and Susan Harding and KATU web staff, "Letter noting assisted suicide raises questions," July 30, 2008.