Keep, improve California’s End of Life Option Act

An elderly ill patient receives care from a nurse. (Photo: Ocskay Mark, via Shutterstock)

Six years ago, I joined terminally ill Californians to pass a law that would provide them the option to die gently when they can no longer tolerate their suffering.

In 2015, I spent long hours in the California Legislature supporting the End of Life Option Act, by then-Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.

This compassionate law gives qualified terminally ill adults the option to access prescription medication if they decide to die peacefully.

The current law requires individuals and their healthcare team to comply with a lengthy, burdensome 13-step process.

This is personal to me: I watched my mother’s lengthy suffering when she died from cancer.  People often thank me and share their stories why this Act is important to them.

We must ACT NOW to permanently reauthorize the End of Life Option Act, eliminate the impediments to access, but preserve the essential safeguards. That means passing Senate Bill 380, authored by Senator Talamantes Eggman, which will be heard in a Senate Health Committee hearing today (March 24).

Three out of four Californians, (75%), support the End of Life Option Act, including a strong majority of people in communities of color (Asian: 76%; Black: 70%; Latino: 68%). So far, nearly 2,000 people (1,985) have accessed the law and 85 percent of these terminally ill Californians were enrolled in hospice.

The current law requires individuals and their healthcare team to comply with a lengthy, burdensome 13-step process. It takes a dying person several weeks to months to get through the process, if they are able to complete it and obtain the prescription at all. People who are dying do not have time to navigate this lengthy and difficult process.

A Kaiser Permanente Southern California study showed that one-third of the terminally ill people who tried to utilize medical aid in dying in Kaiser’s supportive healthcare systems died before completing the time-consuming process; 21 percent of them died during the mandatory 15-day waiting period between the two oral requests for the medication that SB 380 would eliminate.

If you extrapolate this one-third ratio statewide, it would mean nearly 1,000 Californians died before completing the process to obtain a prescription.

These roadblocks and lack of access present the heaviest burdens for Latinos and underserved communities communities. Only four percent of Californians who utilized the law were Hispanic, despite the fact that Hispanics represent more than 39% of the state’s population. We need to ensure that all communities have equitable access to all of their end-of- life care options.

In addition, The Los Angeles Times has reported that the End of Life Option Act has spurred more terminally ill Californians, regardless of whether they use the law or not, to discuss with their physician the full range of end-of-life care options, including hospice and palliative care, and earlier, more effective utilization of them.

As the Mayo Clinic notes: “Enrolling in hospice care early helps you live better and longer, decreases the burden on family, and the family’s likelihood of having a complicated grief period  and prepares family members for their loved one’s death.”

While Latinos only represent two percent of all hospice patients nationwide, the good news is Latinos represent 15 percent of hospice patients in California.

¡Si Se Puede! Yes We Can!

Editor’s Note: Dolores Huerta, co-f0under with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers movement,  is a civil rights activist and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. She was named one of USA Today’s ‘Women of the Century’ in 2020.  

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