Attorney General Holds Meetings on End of Life Care

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(Host) Attorney General Bill Sorrell wants to prompt an extended conversation about the medical care Vermonters receive at the end of their lives. This week, Sorrell launches a series of public hearings on the issue. He says the goal is to help lawmakers draft legislation next year.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Attorney General Sorrell says he was surprised that Vermont scored last among all the states in a national ranking of laws that govern some end of life issues.

He says the Vermont statute that covers advanced directives is cumbersome and inadequate. These are instructions, often called living wills, that spell out the care people want or don’t want to receive if they’re incapacitated or unable to make their own medical decisions.

(Sorrell) “Our Vermont law is not very user-friendly. It takes several different documents. We don’t have a statewide repository of those documents. So even if you have a directive, and you give it to your personal physician, but maybe you’re in a in an emergency room elsewhere in Vermont, they have no way of knowing you have such a directive or what the conditions of that are.”

(Dillon) The attorney general will hold hearings this week to look at the legal and policy barriers to improving the quality of end-of-life care. Sorrell makes it clear the hearings are not related to physician assisted suicide, an issue that the Legislature chose not to address this year.

(Sorrell) “But it is about people suffering unnecessary pain and what should be patients’ rights, in terms of having their pain condition assessed and treated – and then of course all the issues of the advanced care directives.”

(Dillon) Sorrell says he’s heard of cases in Vermont in which advanced directives were not followed.

(Sorrell) “Let’s say you want a Do Not Resuscitate order. If your quality of life is such that you’re not conscious, you can’t really breathe on your own or such and you want nature to take its course, you can say that in one of these documents. But if you say it, but your health care provider is not in a position to know that you have a document or what it says, what good is having it?”

(Dillon) According to Sorrell, most Americans want to die peacefully at home surrounded by loved ones. But he says the reality is that most people die alone in hospitals or nursing homes, often suffering unnecessary pain.

(Sorrell) “These issues that are important today are going to be absolutely critical in 10, 20, 30 years. So now’s the time to do it and to make proposal to the Legislature and to other policymakers.”

(Dillon) The first hearing will be held at the Burlington High School cafeteria on Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. On Thursday, Sorrell will be at the Bennington Library from 10 a.m. to noon. Thursday afternoon, the hearings will be broadcast over Vermont Interactive Television from the Community College site in White River Junction. More information is available on the attorney general’s Web site.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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