Small number of Colorado patients used medical aid in dying during first year of law

One year after a law went into effect in Colorado that allows medical aid in dying, an advocacy group estimates that between 45 and 55 terminally ill adults have requested prescriptions to end their own lives.

The group Compassion & Choices made that estimate based on inquiries to the organization and information that supporters and providers have shared.

The Colorado End of Life Options Act allows mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live to request a doctor’s prescription they can use to end their lives. The nonprofit group said the law has worked as intended.

Colorado voters approved the adoption of the law through a ballot question in the November 2016 election with 65% of voters in favor of the measure.

The exact number of people who used the law will be available when Colorado releases its annual report next spring, the group said. That number could be higher since not every patient may have contacted the advocacy group.

In comparison, the dozens of people in Colorado who requested life-ending medications were far fewer than in California—a much larger state—where an estimated 504 people received prescriptions during the first year of the law in 2016.

“Colorado’s first year of implementation has been a success and is working as voters intended,” Kat West, J.D., national director of policy and programs for Compassion & Choices, said in an announcement.

The group said almost 300 Colorado residents have accessed its tool where they can find medical facilities, systems and hospices that support aid in dying. Some 81 healthcare facilities and 16 hospice locations, including all of the large secular healthcare systems in the state, have adopted policies supportive of patient end-of-life decision making, West said.

In addition to Colorado, medical aid in dying is authorized in five other states: California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

West said studies have shown that the availability of medical aid in dying provides peace of mind to dying patients. Herb Myers, an Aurora resident, whose wife Kathy is believed to be the first Colorado resident to receive a prescription under the law, said that was the case for his wife. “When we actually got the medication, it was like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders,” he said in the announcement.

The law doesn't force patients or doctors to participate, Cory Carroll, M.D., a family physician in Fort Collins, said in the statement, but the experience from other states that have similar laws shows "it improves physician-patient relationships as well as increases utilization of hospice and palliative care.” 

Two state medical societies, in Massachusetts and Vermont, recently dropped their opposition to medical aid in dying, a position that mirrors growing acceptance of the practice among many doctors.

However, while some physician groups have changed their stance, others have held firm. The American College of Physicians published an updated position statement in September reaffirming its opposition to legalization of what it still calls physician-assisted suicide.