Actor James Naughton has testified in favor of the aid in dying bill in Connecticut. Naughton’s wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.
Actor James Naughton has testified in favor of the aid in dying bill in Connecticut. Naughton’s wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.

A bill that would let terminally ill patients access medication to end their lives cleared a crucial hurdle Friday as the legislature’s Public Health Committee voted to send the measure to the House floor.

Lawmakers said it was the first time some version of this bill had made it out of any committee. It has been raised in Connecticut at least 14 times, supporters said.

“We went into the day with strong hopes. And they were not only confirmed but amplified by the fact that a number of people who were conflicted and on the fence chose to vote in favor of it,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, a co-chair of the committee and a proponent of the measure.

The committee voted 24-9 in favor.

Under the bill, an adult patient with a terminal illness – having six months or less to live – would be able to access lethal drugs by making two oral requests at least 15 days apart, and one written request. The written request must be done in the presence of two witnesses who can attest that the patient is of sound mind and acting voluntarily.

A physician would prescribe or dispense the medication, and the patient would self-administer the drug. Requests for the medication may be rescinded by the patient at any time “without regard to his or her mental state,” according to the measure. A doctor would have to refer the patient to another consulting physician for medical confirmation of the person’s diagnosis and for confirmation that the patient is competent and acting voluntarily.

Prior to the bill’s approval Friday, some members of the Public Health Committee raised concerns.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she was worried about “loopholes” in the proposal, including what happens to unused lethal drugs and a requirement that the person signing a patient’s death certificate put the underlying illness as the cause of death.

“What happens when the patient makes the decision to not take those drugs, whatever they may be, and passes away from the disease? We have no idea what happens to those drugs,” she said. “The other thing is, the whole death certificate thing is a big issue. … Asking a physician, the way I read this bill, to put the underlying condition as the cause of death is actually a fraudulent request. And even though they can’t be prosecuted, because you’re giving them immunity, it’s fraudulent.”

Others voted in favor but said they were conflicted.

“I’ll vote for this bill to get out of committee because I do think there are things that need to be worked on. And I do think that we have an obligation to continue the conversation,” said Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington. “But this weighs heavy on me.”

One hundred and twenty-six people signed up to testify on the bill at a public hearing last Friday. Hundreds of pieces of written testimony – spirited arguments for and against the measure – were also submitted to the committee.

People whose loved ones died painfully and some who themselves have received a terminal diagnosis urged legislators to approve the bill, while members of Connecticut’s disability community argued against it.

House Speaker Matthew Ritter said he was “surprised” by Friday’s vote. He declined to speculate on the proposal’s chances in the House but said legislators would discuss it in caucus.

“I am surprised … that it came out the way it did, in a bipartisan way,” he said, noting that three Republicans on the Public Health Committee voted in favor. “I do think this is an option people should have at the end of their lives. [Lawmakers] have put a lot of safeguards in the bill over the years, and I’m confident there are enough protections in there to answer some of the concerns. But we’ve never caucused it in all my years in the legislature because it has never gotten out of committee.”

“This is one that we’ll have to open up to the full caucus for a bigger conversation,” he said. “It’s worth a conversation with everybody to see where people stand.”

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Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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