Lujan Grisham signs aid-in-dying bill

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Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·5 min read
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Apr. 9—In a legislative session full of contentious proposals from more progressive lawmakers — such as legalizing cannabis and repealing a decades-old abortion ban — perhaps none drew as much controversy as one that would give terminally ill patients the right to seek a doctor's aid in dying.

On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law House Bill 47, known as the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, which gives certain patients the right to ask a physician to prescribe drugs to end their suffering.

The legislation is named after a New Mexico judge who died of cancer in 2018 after lobbying legislators for years to approve a so-called right-to-die bill.

"It's important for all patients to know all of their options at the end of life," said Elizabeth Armijo, advocacy director of Compassion and Choices, a national nonprofit.

"And being able to have the option of medical aid in dying will bring tremendous relief to people who may not be able to bear their suffering any longer," Armijo added.

She and other proponents say the new law will give patients facing a painful death more control and an option to die with dignity.

Opponents argue, however, the law could lead to abuse of elderly relatives or prompt people to take their own lives because they fear their terminal illness has made them a burden on loved ones.

Matt Vallière, executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, wrote in an email Thursday, "At a time when legislators should be laser-focused on expanding access to quality medical care and treatment options for all New Mexicans, it's outrageous that they have instead chosen to pass a discriminatory bill aimed at making death more accessible for those with life-threatening disabilities."

Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, the main sponsor of the bill, said Whitefield would have been "greatly relieved, satisfied, happy" to know her effort finally met success.

Armstrong's daughter Erin, who is in her 40s, spoke in favor of the bill before a legislative committee earlier this year. She told the lawmakers she has been fighting a 20-year battle with cancer.

While she "desperately" wants to keep living, she said, she is aware she likely will not survive the disease.

Armstrong said her daughter now has a "great relief that she doesn't have to worry about being in agony when the time comes."

The legislation will not force physicians, pharmacists or other health care professionals to provide life-ending drugs.

As the law is written, a terminally ill patient's doctor can prescribe the drugs only after obtaining a second medical opinion and ensuring the patient is mentally and emotionally fit to make a choice about ending their life.

New Mexico is now the 10th state in the nation to enact an aid-in-dying bill. Washington, D.C., has a similar law.

Kim Callinan, president and CEO of Compassionate Choices Action Network, said New Mexico's bill is different from others because it allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as physicians, to prescribe the life-ending drugs.

While most states' aid-in-dying laws include a 15-day waiting period between the time the patient receives approval for the drugs and when they can obtain the them, New Mexico's waiting period is 48 hours.

Based on data her organization has collected, Callinan said up to half of patients who have sought the life-ending prescription have died during the 15-day waiting period — which she calls a "suffering period."

Callinan said her group's data shows about 4,300 patients have chosen to pursue medical aid in dying.

The law goes into effect June 18, 90 days after the end of this year's regular legislative session.

Lujan Grisham signed 10 bills into law Thursday, including the following:

* House Bill 20 ensures employees of private businesses accrue at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Unlike most laws that go into effect within 90 days of this year's regular legislative session, this one takes effect July 1, 2022. The delay is to give businesses more time to prepare.

* House Bill 112 requires hospitals providing indigent care to treat all noncitizens equally, regardless of their immigration status.

* House Bill 234 requires the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council Office of Guardianship to recruit and train volunteer court visitors and establishes a court visitor pilot program managed by the judiciary to monitor guardianship cases.

* House Bill 266 amends the School Personnel Act to create a Level 1 alternative teaching license for people who teach students with disabilities. The bill requires candidates to take part in a 15-week apprenticeship under a Level 2-A or 3-A special-education teacher while taking related college coursework.

* House Bill 331 requires the calculation for school transportation funds for fiscal year 2023 to be based on fiscal year 2020 transportation data and fiscal year 2019 transportation expenditure data.

* Senate Bill 8 amends sections of state law to allow state and local governments to adopt certain environmental regulations more stringent than federal regulations.

* Senate Bill 40 requires all secondary schools to provide extended learning programs and all elementary schools to provide K-5 Plus or extended learning programs in the next school year unless in-person instruction is prohibited by executive order.

* Senate Bill 49 amends the Local Economic Development Act in several ways, including changing the definition of retail business, removing the noncompete clause for retail businesses and expanding opportunities for a municipality to enter into a project participation agreement with the Department of Economic Development.

* Senate Bill 317 amends the Health Care Purchasing Act and the Insurance Code to prohibit the imposition of cost sharing by health insurers on behavioral health services. It also incorporates the provisions of House Bill 122 to establish a Health Care Affordability Fund, which would lower costs of individual health insurance plans offered through the state's network, by raising the premium surtax insurance providers pay.