OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Residents of a Napa County veterans’ home sued California on Tuesday, seeking the right of physician-assisted suicide in state-run veterans’ homes.
Robert Sloan, 73, and Jensena Thomas, 77, claim the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) recklessly banned their right to physician-assisted death on the grounds that veterans’ homes require terminally ill residents to move out if they intend to use aid-in-dying care.
"If you're a veteran residing in a CalVet home and you are confronted by a dying process so brutal that the individual decides achieving a peaceful death [through aid-in-dying care] is the least worst option...to tell that person they must move out of their home and essentially be thrown out on the street is a very draconian result for the veteran," said Kathryn Tucker, an attorney with the End of Life Liberty Project representing the plaintiffs, in an interview.
California legalized physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients who have the capacity to make decisions about their medical care when it enacted the End of Life Option Act in June 2016. But CalVet swiftly banned the practice at its eight veterans’ homes around the state, decreeing anyone intending to take life-ending drugs must discharge themselves.
Oregon, Colorado and Vermont — where physician-assisted death is legal — also have banned the practice in state-run veterans’ homes, according to reports. Washington state allows it.
CalVet said it did not want to violate a 1997 federal law prohibiting the use of federal funds for aid-in-dying care, jeopardizing $68 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to operate the homes.
But Sloan and Thomas, who both live at the California Veterans Home in Yountville, call CalVet’s rationale “false” in their lawsuit. They say that so long as CalVet uses only state funds to pay for aid-in-dying care, it will not violate federal law.
Federal money pays for 22 percent of the cost of operating California veterans homes; the state pays for 61 percent, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs say defendant CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin have discussed a “solution” on aid-in-dying care that “respects state law and would harmonize federal law, so long as no federal funding whatsoever was used in the procurement or administration of this type of drug.”
And Tucker said by phone CalVet had "seemed very open" in discussions to working around the federal statute by using state funds.
"Imbasciani said he really wanted to ensure end-of-life liberty for veterans was respected," Tucker said of conversations with the CalVet secretary. But a year and a half later, she said, "nothing has changed."
Tucker theorized CalVet left the ban in place due to "laziness." Ensuring only state funds are used to pay for physician-assisted death in veterans' homes would require that CalVet create an accounting system to separate federal and state money, she said.
A CalVet representative said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The California Department of Justice did not return an email seeking comment.
Thomas, who lives at the Yountville home with her 83-year-old veteran husband, says the prospect of eviction effectively denies her her rights under the End of Life Option Act because she and other residents have nowhere else to go.
Sloan, who suffers from congestive heart failure and an aortic aneurysm, says in the complaint: “I’m not going to be a vegetable. I’m not going to end up living in so much pain it’s unbearable.”
They seek a writ of mandate, declaratory judgment and an injunction.
A California appeals court in Riverside temporarily reinstated the California law in June, reversing a state judge who deemed it unconstitutional because the Legislature passed it during a special session convened to discuss health care.
Holland & Knight attorney Matthew Vafidis in San Francisco also represents the plaintiffs.
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