Since medically assisted death became legal in Canada in June 2016, 268 people in Alberta have died with assistance up to December 31, 2017 according to figures from Alberta Health Services. The Alberta model is being called a success by supporters of assisted death. It’s an integrated service where patients can contact one navigator in their area and be accompanied through the whole process.
“Families feel supported,” said June Churchill with the Calgary chapter of Dying with Dignity. “There are still barriers and hurdles but at least they have a nurse that is assigned to them to help them navigate the system.”
Churchill says some of the barriers are faith-based facilities. Thirty-seven patients in Alberta have had to be transferred from those centres. Among them are hospitals operated by Catholic-based health agency Covenant Health. Covenant prohibits medical aid in dying in all its facilities, which requires patients to be transferred elsewhere when the time comes.
“It’s very hard on the patient. These are terminally ill people who have problems with pain management and they or their family are having to insist that a transfer be made,” Churchill said.
WATCH: The province is under fire for allowing faith-based hospitals in Alberta to deny the rights of patients who want medically assisted death. Brad Peter from Dying with Dignity Canada joins Shaye Ganam to talk about a petition is urging people to take a stand.
The issue was debated at a forum hosted by the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association at the University of Calgary on Saturday. Members of Calgary’s Catholic community argued that Covenant has a constitutional right, adding that referral information and assessments are provided at the hospitals.
“Covenant does everything in its power to make that transition peaceful, expeditious and respectful,” said Kent Donlevy, a Calgary lawyer and education expert, who was participating in the panel discussion.
Dying with Dignity started a petition on Friday, asking all premiers and health ministers to address the issue.
“The provincial government administers the funds so they fund the beds. So they may not be able to change the policy in existing facilities, but no new money should go to beds in facilities that refuse to offer this complete service for people,” Churchill said.
Calgary Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann says he’s still wrestling with the issue but he says it brings up whether or not there should even be publicly-funded faith-based centres in Alberta.
“I have been a critic of the separate Covenant health system in Alberta and wondering why we are funding two parallel systems with two boards and separate policies and how long that can be sustained,” said Swann.
From June 2016 to November 30, 2017, 105 patients who requested a medically assisted death did not meet the federal criteria.
Ineligibility reasons include: a mental health diagnosis, loss of competency and that death is not reasonably foreseeable. The most cited health conditions include: cancer, MS, ALS and advanced lung disease. The average age in Calgary of people receiving the service is 70 years old.