Senate passes bill to amend Vermont’s medical-aid-in-dying law

Michael Sirotkin
Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, on the Senate floor in May 2019. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Vermont Senate gave final approval Tuesday morning to legislation that would amend the state’s medical-aid-in-dying law. The bill, which passed on a voice vote, next proceeds to the House for consideration.

S.74 would make three changes to an existing law, known as Act 39, that allows terminally ill patients to request a prescription to end their life. 

The legislation would allow patients to request life-ending medication using telemedicine, rather than requiring in-person appointments. It would remove the 48-hour waiting period between a patient finishing the request process and obtaining a prescription. It also would broaden explicit legal protections for health care workers involved in the process, specifically including pharmacists.

Senators passed the bill with no debate Tuesday, but they addressed it in personal terms on Friday when it first reached the floor. 

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who presented the bill to the body, spoke Friday about former Vermont House Majority Leader Willem Jewett, who died earlier this month using a prescription obtained through Act 39. 

“He lived just up the mountain from me, which in Vermont makes us neighbors,” she said.

Hardy, speaking to the floor via Zoom, quoted Jewett’s interview with VTDigger a few days before he died, in which he said he found the current request process unnecessarily burdensome. 

“I ask the Senate to pass S.74 in memory of Willem and his incredible life,” Hardy said.

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, spoke Friday of his wife, Sen. Sally Fox, who died in 2014 after developing lung cancer. Sirotkin was present when Fox first requested the prescription from her doctor, he said, though, “for various reasons, she didn’t complete that process.” 

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who chairs the committee that first considered the bill, spoke Friday of Dee Allen, a former resolutions clerk for the Vermont House. Allen requested medical aid in dying in 2020 after she was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease. 

“Overall, I think it offers great reassurance to people who are in some pretty difficult health situations,” Lyons said. “And so I hope that the House will pick it up and pass it to the governor's desk for his signature.”

Lyons said she expects little resistance to the bill in the House. 

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, voted against S.74 on Tuesday. In Friday’s discussion, he brought up the original reason he opposed medical aid in dying in 2013. In the months before Act 39 came up for a vote, Benning had been the primary caretaker for his mother as she was sick with cancer. His mother asked him to promise he would vote against the medical-aid-in-dying bill. He agreed. She died before the bill came to the floor.

When he made this promise, he never thought the bill would make it very far in the Legislature, Benning said. Had he not made that promise, he likely would have voted in favor of the law, he said, describing it as conflicting with his libertarian beliefs.

While that oath weighed on Tuesday’s vote, Benning said, he also believes S.74 went too far and has “muddied up the protections” set out in the original law. He believes a prescribing physician should be required to do a physical exam as part of the prescription request process, he said. 

When Act 39 was first passed, “promises were made that there were all kinds of things in place to make sure people made the right decision,” Benning said. “I think those promises have been burst by this language.” 

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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