A CalVet official says the agency adopted the rule to avoid violating a federal statute that prohibits using U.S. government resources for physician-assisted death. Otherwise, the agency would jeopardize nearly $68 million in federal funds that helps run the facilities, said June Iljana, CalVet’s deputy secretary of communications.
California is not alone. Three other states where aid-in-dying is legal—Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont—prohibit use of lethal medications in state-run veterans’ homes.
In Montana, where aid-in-dying is allowed under a state Supreme Court ruling, officials didn’t respond to multiple requests about whether veterans would be able to use the law in the residences. However, Eric Kress, a Missoula physician who prescribes the lethal medication, says he has transferred patients to hospice, to relatives’ homes, even to extended-stay hotels to avoid conflict.
In Washington, D.C., where an aid-in-dying law took effect last summer, the Armed Forces Retirement Home won’t assist patients in any way. Those who wish to use the law would be referred to an ethics committee for individual consideration, Christopher Kelly, a spokesman, said in an email.
Only Washington state has a policy that allows veterans to remain in government-run residences if they intend to ingest lethal medications. At least one veteran has died in a state-run home using that law, says Heidi Audette, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs.
Paul Sherbo, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the choice is up to the states.
“VA does not mandate how states comply with federal law,” Sherbo said in an email. “There are a number of ways individual states can choose to handle such situations and still be in compliance.”
To date, none of the 2,400 residents of California’s veterans’ homes have formally requested medical aid-in-dying, said Iljana. That includes the more than 900 residents of the Yountville center, located about 60 miles north of San Francisco.
“We would respectfully and compassionately assist them in transferring to a hospice, family home, or other location,” Iljana said in an email. “We will readmit them immediately if they change their minds.”
But Kathryn Tucker, the executive director of the End of Life Liberty Project, an advocacy group that supports aid-in-dying, says that CalVet is interpreting the federal regulations too broadly and denying terminally ill veterans the right to choose a “peaceful death” through medical assistance.
“Nothing exists in the federal statute’s language that would prohibit a resident from receiving aid-in-dying services at state homes, so long as they are not provided using federal funds or employees,” she says.
Ed Warren, the head of the Allied Council, a group representing veterans at the Yountville site, cosigned a letter to CalVet officials protesting the ruling.