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Activists Expect Strong Interest When Colorado Right-to-Die Goes Into Effect

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Charlie Selsberg, an ALS patient, started it with an editorial begging for a law that would allow him to choose an option that he found better than life.

Charlie wanted to die.

Now activists in Compassion & Choices, doctors in the Colorado Medical Society, and bureaucrats in the state Department of Health have to make it work.

Three years ago, Charlie took his last breath without the benefit of legalized physician-assisted death. But his daughter, Julie Selsberg, carried on the fight in the Colorado legislature.

However, those who supported the idea failed twice to win approval for the proposal from the legislature.

Colorado voters took over.

On Election Day, they passed Proposition 106, the End of Life Option Act.

“It went from one citizen voicing an opinion and a wish, and it got carried through by voters of the state,” Julie Selsberg told CBS4 in Denver.

However, she also cautioned it is not as easy to choose the option of death in Colorado as one might think.

To begin with, nobody is going to be able to drive into Colorado just to die. Only legal residents of the state, with a valid driver’s license or tax return, can apply for the program. And the person who chooses to die has to be able to administer the medicine himself.

Death also has to be at their doorstep.

Two doctors have to confirm that the patient only has six months to live. The patient then has to make three requests for the lethal cocktail of medicine that will be prescribed for the soon-to-be dearly departed. Two of the requests must be made in person. The third has to be a written request.

The patient who chooses death may also be forced to undergo a mental health exam.

Assuming the patient who wants to die clears all of the hurdles, he will be given the medication in four ounces of liquid. After drinking it, the patient should quickly fall asleep. Death follows in a couple of hours.

To comply with voter approval of Proposition 106, the Colorado Medical Board has changed its policy on doctors helping patients die. Next, the state Department of Health has to draft new rules for doctors who choose to offer their patients the option of a liquid death.

That can’t happen soon enough for Matt Larson, a Denver attorney who has suffered from brain cancer since 2015.

He’s in remission now, but doctors give Larson only a 50-50 chance of being cancer-free for the rest of his life.

Larson does not want to die today, but when he does, he would rather die his own way than suffer the “agonizing and painful death” that comes with brain cancer.

Larson said he and his wife, Kelly, felt a sense of relief when Proposition 106 was approved.

“Medical aid in dying has become a very personal issue for my wife and me and my entire family,” he told the Denver Post.

Even though the new law allows people like Matt Larson to choose the option of a relatively peaceful death, it does not force doctors to comply with that request.

Indeed, a Colorado Medical Society survey of its members showed “deep differences” on the concept of physician-aided death (PAD).

Fifty-six percent of those who responded voiced support for the concept of PAD, while 35 percent said they were opposed. And among those opposed, 25 percent described themselves as “strongly opposed.”

The survey, which was released in May, showed CMS members were as concerned with the implementation of PAD as they were with the concept.

For instance, slightly more than half of the membership said they worried that legalizing PAD would give family members of terminally ill patients leverage to force their relatives to die quickly.

To ease those concerns, Compassion & Choices, the organization that led the successful ballot proposal effort in Colorado — and five other states — is running a statewide, bilingual education program for terminally ill people, their families and doctors.

A December statement from Compassion & Choices also said the organization would “provide technical assistance to doctors, healthcare providers and terminally ill adults about all the end-of-life care options to relieve intolerable suffering, including hospice, palliative care and medical aid in dying.”

Eight C&C teams will fan out across the state, giving presentations at senior citizen centers, colleges and other locations so terminally ill patients can understand their rights.

A team of C&C members will also be tasked with helping doctors understand the new law and how they can help their terminally ill patients who might choose to leave this life with the help of a four-ounce cocktail.

“We need to normalize it and integrate it into the standard of care,” Kat West, national director of policy and programs for Compassion & Choices, told the Colorado Independent.

West also said she expects people to begin requesting prescriptions for the end of life medication on the first day the law takes effect, which should be in early January.

That doesn’t surprise Julie Selsberg.

“It just brings people a level of calm and peace of mind,” said Selsberg, “and I know it would have done the same for my dad.”