'Disappointing' assisted dying bill passes in Manitoba

The passage of the Manitoba government’s Bill 34 is a major blow to patient rights in the province, Dying With Dignity Canada says.

On Thursday evening, MLAs in the Manitoba legislature voted to pass Bill 34, which provides sweeping protections for healthcare practitioners who conscientiously object to medical assistance in dying (MAID). The bill prohibits the province’s professional regulatory bodies and healthcare institutions from disciplining clinicians for refusing to facilitate a MAID request. It also handcuffs the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba (CPSM), which regulates the practice of medicine in the province, from introducing tougher rules to ensure that doctors who oppose MAID don’t obstruct patients who wish to access it.

The leading organization helping Canadians to avoid unwanted, unnecessary suffering at end of life, Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC) says Bill 34 prioritizes the views of objecting clinicians over the rights and interests of vulnerable Manitobans. “Today is a disappointing day for patient rights in Manitoba,” said DWDC CEO Shanaaz Gokool. “Bill 34 communicates that it’s OK for clinicians who oppose assisted dying to tell individuals who request it, ‘You’re on your own.’ We believe that Manitobans, those who are in potentially the most vulnerable moment of their lives, deserve better.”

Bill 34 effectively ensconces existing provincial regulation surrounding MAID. Currently, the CPSM doesn’t require doctors who oppose MAID to refer patients who request it to a willing provider or third-party agency. Objecting physicians may give the patient “timely access to a resource,” such as a website address or a number for MAID referral service, instead of coordinating a proper referral.

“Individuals who request MAID are some of this country’s most vulnerable, physically compromised patients,” Gokool said. “It is unreasonable to expect them to navigate the healthcare system without the help of their family doctor or nurse practitioner.”

Thursday’s vote comes two weeks after it was revealed that an 88-year-old man who had requested assisted dying at Winnipeg’s Misericordia Hospital waited months for his case to be referred to a MAID provider. Cheppudira Gopalkrishna made a request for MAID this spring after he had been hospitalized due to complications related to ALS. But according to a report by CBC News, staff at Misericordia, which prohibits MAID on site, failed to forward Gopalkrishna’s name and contact information to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s (WRHA) MAID team. It wasn’t until October, when a volunteer contacted the WRHA on Gopalkrishna’s behalf, that an assessment could be arranged.

In response to these revelations, Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen told fellow MLAs in the provincial legislature that cases like Gopalkrishna’s “should not happen” and vowed to take steps to prevent them from taking place.

However, Gokool said the government’s approach on Bill 34 raises questions about the sincerity of Goertzen’s commitment to ensuring fair and timely access to MAID in the province of Manitoba.

“Mr. Gopalkrishna’s story is a vivid example of what happens when the beliefs of healthcare providers and institutions are put ahead of the rights of vulnerable patients,” she said. “Until we develop protocols that finally put the person first, these injustices will continue to occur.”

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