Michael Hayward just watched somebody die. And he’s angry, because the next death he witnesses may be more difficult—and a lot more expensive.
Hayward is a former nurse and firefighter who has volunteered for two years with Compassion and Choices Oregon, an advocacy group for terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives under the state’s Death With Dignity Act.
He educates terminally ill patients about the law, helps with end-of-life planning and often attends their deaths. The ideal death, he says, is planned, painless and relatively inexpensive—thanks to lethal drugs that should be readily available to anyone who needs them.
But Hayward is going public with a closely kept secret about pentobarbital, the optimal drug for his clients: It’s no longer available in Oregon. The next-best drug, secobarbital, costs $1,500 to $2,300—more than five times what pentobarbital costs. Even at that price, it’s hard to get.
Hayward says one patient was recently forced to seek funding for her secobarbital from a Washington foundation that helps cover end-of-life costs.
“It seems obvious that if there was an Oregon law, passed and supported by the majority of voters, that enabled physicians to relieve end-of-life pain and suffering, then the law should be supported regardless of a citizen’s ability to pay,” Hayward says. “When Oregon citizens are denied access to that law, then something needs to be done.”
Death-with-dignity patients are victims of a global political battle over capital punishment in the U.S., according to the federal Food and Drug Administration, which regulates pharmaceuticals, and the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees application of the state’s Death With Dignity Act.
Access to pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, has all but ended in the United States because U.S. prison officials use it in lethal injections for executions.
“Manufacturing of the product has gone overseas, and the company [that makes Nembutal] has made a policy decision not to ship it because it can be used in death-penalty cases,” says Tom Burns, pharmacy director for the Oregon Health Authority.
In recent years, death-penalty opponents have pressured drug companies here and in Europe to restrict drugs used to execute death-row inmates.
States such as Texas and Oklahoma that regularly execute prisoners have found it increasingly difficult to obtain the drugs they require, including pentobarbital.
The shortage of drugs played a role in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last month. According to media reports, the death-row doctor used a new cocktail of drugs that left Lockett writhing in pain before he died 43 minutes later of a heart attack.
With publicity like that, it’s hardly surprising that nobody involved in the pentobarbital supply chain wants to talk about Oregon’s problem.
In 1997, Oregon became the first state in the nation to approve allowing doctors to write lethal prescriptions for terminally ill patients. In 2013, doctors wrote 122 prescriptions under the Death With Dignity Act, allowing 71 Oregonians to take their own lives. That brought the total number of death facilitated by the act to 752….
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