Alberta health minister says no legal gap looming on assisted dying

A file photo of Health Minister Sarah Hoffman.
A file photo of Health Minister Sarah Hoffman. Global News

EDMONTON – Alberta’s health minister says there won’t be a legal vacuum when physician-assisted death becomes legal next week, even though two levels of government have failed to put rules in place.

Sarah Hoffman says the government is still trying to meet the Supreme Court of Canada’s Monday deadline, but the province will follow guidelines from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta if it can’t.

“We want to make sure we want to get it right, so we’re working as quickly as we can,” Hoffman said Wednesday. “No matter what, though, there will be a seamless transition for patients.”

The Supreme Court ruled in February 2015 that physician-assisted dying should be legal and extended its original deadline of a year to give provinces and the new federal government time to craft legislation.

The federal government is running behind on its bill. It passed the house Tuesday and is now headed to the Senate, but isn’t expected to be ready by Monday.

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Until the federal legislation is ready, Alberta is developing its own regulations that attempt to mirror the Supreme Court decision.

READ MORE: Physician-assisted death debated in Alberta legislature

Opposition politicians in the legislature only saw the draft regulations this week and say it’s too critical an issue to rush.

“They’ve known June 6th was coming for a long time,” said Wildrose health critic Drew Barnes.

“They truly hoped the feds would have all this resolved,” added critic Richard Starke of the Progressive Conservatives. “This is an issue that is very personal to people and they want to know what the rules are.”

Hoffman said the regulations will encompass and build on the Alberta college’s guidelines. Those specify that people of sound mind over 18 with grievous conditions that can’t be cured or rectified can ask for a doctor to help them take their own lives.

READ MORE: Alberta government introduces motion on physician-assisted death

The entire process has to be verified with a second doctor and independent witnesses. Patients have to be notified of other treatment options and be reminded they can change their minds at any time.

The college says people who decide to take their own lives in such a way should, except in urgent circumstances, wait two weeks to reflect on their decision.

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Any doctor who doesn’t wish to participate doesn’t have to, but must refer the patient to someone who can help.

Alberta has identified 80 physicians willing to assist.

Federal and provincial governments are all tasked with coming up with rules on assisted dying. Ottawa drafts the rules and the provinces design the framework to carry them out. If Alberta’s rules conflict with the federal law, the provisions of the federal law will supersede them.

The federal bill is already facing sharp criticism.

While the Supreme Court ruling says physician assisted death is permissible for grievous and incurable medical conditions, C-14 restricts it to those who are in “an advanced stage of irreversible decline” from a serious and incurable illness or disability.

Quebec already has its own law, and Hoffman said Alberta has made more progress on its rules than any other province.