Colorado End of Life Options Act Vocabulary part II

denver elder law

Strange Orchid

 

So this is the second post examining our new statute. Today I’m focusing on a couple of its provisions which provide an intersection which I find quite troubling.  Let’s look first at  C.R.S. 25-48-103. Right to request medical aid-in-dying medication

  • (1) An adult resident of Colorado may make a request, in accordance with sections 25-48-104 and 25-48-112, to receive a prescription for medical aid- in-dying medication if:
  • (a) The individual’s attending physician has diagnosed the individual with a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less;
  • (b) The individual’s attending physician has determined the individual has mental capacity: and
  • (c) The individual has voluntarily expressed the wish to receive a prescription for medical aid-in-dying medication.
  • (2) The right to request medical aid-in-dying does not exist because of age or disability.

Seems simple enough, but did you read (2)?  This (2) is particularly interesting as it looks to be intended to try and minimize criticism from two quarters: First from elders and those who work for and with them (like yours truly) who can both understand the quality of life aspects of the availability of MAID to frail and vulnerable elders; and can also see the connection between “duty to die” (remember Gov. Lamm?) and a “right to die” based on . . . .  a perceived (by others) quality of life and use of scarce resources.  This statutory language provides no comfort for me.  Secondly, this (2) is also a vain attempt to disqualify criticisms from the disability rights community (folks like Not Dead Yet,) who challenge equating “quality of life” and “loss of autonomy” with “dignity.”

If you think I’m exaggerating the concern with ageism and loss of dignity of elders inherent in this statute, then simply turn your attention to §25-48-116 (Immunities for actions in good faith) which states at (3):

A request by an individual for, or the provision by an attending physician of, medical aid-in-dying medication in good-faith compliance with this article does not:

  • (a) Constitute neglect or elder abuse for any purpose of law; or
  • (b) Provide the basis for the appointment of a guardian or conservator.

Can the really say this?!!  Does the provision of these broad and sweeping statements pertaining to elders or the disabled address the underlying issue and concern about potential for coercion or exploitation? I don’t believe it does at all – in fact it points out the law’s weaknesses here. Yet the proponents of the initiative denied and discounted any concerns from those who would question putting vulnerable elders at risk of being coerced and exploited.

The statute’s attempt to preempt any claim that another’s encouragement or assistance (I can think of several different dangerous scenarios off the top of my head) or “helping” someone with availing themselves of MAID would not constitute elder abuse, coercion, undue influence, or some other improper activity is shocking to me.  The fact remains that there are a lot of elders who are not in good health who could easily be convinced to use MAID.  Will the doctors be sensitive to this? Will they have the training and the resources to detect the “big picture” of what an exploiter may be attempting to gain from an elder who is simply trying to use MAID?  These questions trouble me.

A recent case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Gross v. Switzerland, involved a Swiss national who sought physician assisted suicide on the grounds that she was old and adversely affected by the continued decline of her faculties.  Previous ECHR decisions concerned the assisted suicide for persons who were seriously ill.   Turns out there was a Swiss woman who did not have a serious illness but she had simply grown tired of living in her octogenarian body.

The concern about aging and quality of life is real and not imagined, especially based on this (quality of life) being one of the top reasons for Oregonians choosing death.  It reminds me of the statistics about victims of elder abuse – that they tend to have their lives shortened by such abuse.  Our statute would seem to affirm that the life-shortening on quality of life grounds is legitimate and simply a matter of one’s own “choosing.”  It validates what many of us suspect, that if things don’t look like they will get any better for us, we might as well give it up and cut our losses.  I’m thinking of a well written New Yorker article from June 22, 2015 entitled “The Death Treatment: when should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?”  I’m back to my concern stated in my previous post about the power we have given over to our doctors, who now determine whether a person suffers from a terminal illness and is otherwise entitled to seek MAID.  In Colorado, our law defines self-administration, but the statute has no explicit requirement that an individual self-administer.  We don’t have to “jump” to any conclusions here – the path is just a baby step from self-administration to administration with some assistance.

So if we only think there exists a requirement of self-administration, then the line between a doctor prescribing MAID and the “delivery” of the drugs either through self-administration or with assistance (albeit often in the guise of encouragement) of others is a thin one indeed.  I quote from The New Yorker article here:

The laws seem to have created a new conception of suicide as a medical treatment, stripped of its tragic dimensions. Patrick Wyffels, a Belgian family doctor, told me that the process of performing euthanasia, which he does eight to ten times a year, is “very magical.” But he sometimes worries about how his own values might influence a patient’s decision to die or to live. “Depending on communication techniques, I might lead a patient one way or the other,” he said. In the days before and after the procedure, he finds it difficult to sleep. “You spend seven years studying to be a doctor, and all they do is teach you how to get people well—and then you do the opposite,” he told me. “I am afraid of the power that I have in that moment.”

I am concerned that what the End of Life Options Act appears to offer folks is freedom of choice, but it is really more about the giving away of more power to our doctors as well as making segments of our population even more vulnerable to coercion.  More later!

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

Colorado End of Life Options Act – A Vocabulary Lesson

A Threshold

I’m gearing up for a continuing legal education program where I’ll be presenting on this new Colorado statute [EoLOA for short, even if it sounds more like Hawaiian], so I’m now writing part of my materials.  I thought I’d start with the basics in this post by looking first at how terms are defined (or not defined) in the statute as well as the parameters of the “right to request” life ending drugs.  I will list the entire definitional section here, but due to space constraints, will focus only on a couple salient terms in this post.

Here’s an overview of some of the key terms in the statute’s definitional section, 25-48-102:

  1. Adult means an individual who is 18 years of age or older;
  2. “Attending physician” means a physician who has primary responsibility for the care of a terminally ill individual and the treatment of the individual’s terminal illness.
  3. “Consulting physician” means a physician who is qualified by specialty or experience to make a professional diagnosis and prognosis regarding a terminally ill individual’s illness.
  4. “Health care provider” or “provider” means a person who is licensed, certified, registered, or otherwise authorized or permitted by law to administer health care or dispense medication in the ordinary course of business or practice of a profession. The term includes a health care facility, including long-term care facility as defined in section 25-3-103.7(1) (f.3) and a continuing care retirement community as described in section 5-6-203 (l)(c)(I), C.R.S.
  5. “Informed decision” means a decision that is:
  • (a)Made by an individual to obtain a prescription for medical aid-in- dying medication that the qualified individual may decide to self- administer to end his or her life in a peaceful manner;
  • (b)Based on an understanding and acknowledgment of the relevant facts; and
  • (c)Made after the attending physician fully informs the individual of;
  • (I) His or her medical diagnosis and prognosis of six months or less;
  • (II)  The potential risks associated with taking the medical aid-in- dying medication to be prescribed;
  • (III) The probable result of taking the medical aid-in-dying medication to be prescribed;
  • (IV) The choices available to an individual that demonstrate his or her self-determination and intent to end his or her life in a peaceful manner, including the ability to choose whether to:
    • (A)Request medical aid in dying;
    • (B) Obtain a prescription for medical aid-in-dying medication to end his or her life;
    • (C) Fill the prescription and possess medical aid-in-dying medication to end his or her life; and
    • (D) Ultimately self-administer the medical aid-in-dying medication to bring about a peaceful death; and
  • (V) All feasible alternatives or additional treatment opportunities, including comfort care, palliative care, hospice care, and pain control.
  •  (6) “Licensed mental health professional” means a psychiatrist licensed under article 36 of title 12, C.R.S., or a psychologist licensed under part 3 of article 43 of title 12, C.R.S.
  • (7)“Medical aid in dying” means the medical practice of a physician prescribing medical aid-in-dying medication to a qualified individual that the individual may choose to self-administer to bring about a peaceful death.
  • (8) “Medical aid-in-dying medication” means medication prescribed by a physician pursuant to this article to provide medical aid in dying to a qualified individual.
  • (9) “Medically confirmed” means that a consulting physician who has examined the terminally ill individual and the terminally ill individual’s relevant medical records has confirmed the medical opinion of the attending physician.
  • (10) “Mental capacity” or “mentally capable” means that in the opinion of an individual’s attending physician, consulting physician, psychiatrist or psychologist, the individual has the ability to make and communicate an informed decision to health care providers.
  • (11) “Physician” means a doctor of medicine or osteopathy licensed to practice medicine by the Colorado medical board.
  • (12) “Prognosis of six months or less” means a prognosis resulting from a terminal illness that the illness will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months and which has been medically confirmed.
  • (13) “Qualified individual” means a terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less, who has mental capacity, has made an informed decision, is a resident of the state, and has satisfied the requirements of this article in order to obtain a prescription for medical aid-in-dying medication to end his or her life in a peaceful manner.
  • (14) “Resident” means an individual who is able to demonstrate residency in Colorado by providing any of the following documentation to his or her attending physician:
    • (a)A Colorado driver’s license or identification card pursuant to article 2 of title 42, C.R.S.;
    • (b)A Colorado voter registration card or other documentation showing the individual is registered to vote in Colorado;
    • (c)Evidence that the individual owns or leases property in Colorado; or
    • (d)A Colorado income tax return for the most recent tax year.
    • (15)“Self-administer” means a qualified individual’s affirmative, conscious, and physical act of administering the medical aid-in-dying medication to himself or herself to bring about his or her own death.
    • (16) “Terminal illness” means an incurable and irreversible illness that will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death.

So here goes . . . this law is only for adults! There is no provision for minors as is allowed in some European countries, like Belgium.  Next, you’ll note that the physicians (they must be licensed M.D. or D.O., no N.P. or P.A. allowed) have a huge amount of responsibility.  Remember that the gist of this law is to remove the threat of criminal prosecution for assisting a person to die by prescribing life-ending drugs under certain proscribed circumstances, so this focus on the doctors is wholly appropriate.

The two basic types of physicians are the attending and the consulting.  The attending physician is the one who has primary responsibility for the care of the terminally ill individual.  We are familiar with the phenomenon of the “pot shop” doctor here in Colorado . . .  well this provision is designed to ensure that the attending is not someone who simply provides the scrip for the life-ending medication or “medical aid in dying” [hereafter MAID] as the statute calls it.

The attending physician must “fully inform” the individual of the diagnosis, prognosis of six months or less; as well as the choice (see (5) (c) above) and consequences of requesting MAID as well as the alternatives including additional treatment, palliative care and hospice care.  Unfortunately for us, the terminology used in (5) is “informed decision,” which is a term foreign to Colorado law.  In the statute it is tied to “mentally capable” in (10), which includes the ability to make and communicate an informed decision to health care providers.  The Colorado term which is familiar to me is from the Colorado Medical Treatment Decision Act, at C.R.S. §15-8.7-102(7), which defines “decisional capacity” as the ability to provide informed consent to or refusal of medical treatment.  A similar definition is found in the health care POA statute, at C.R.S. §15-14-505(4).  The preceding section of that statute also states (at §15-14-504(4):

Nothing in this part 5 shall be construed as condoning, authorizing, or approving euthanasia or mercy killing. In addition, the general assembly does not intend that this part 5 be construed as permitting any affirmative or deliberate act to end a person’s life, except to permit natural death as provided by this part 5.  

Interesting, huh? While reviewing inconsistencies between these terms describing capacity is something attorneys might get excited about, it appears unlikely to provide difficulties for the physicians involved.   I will discuss the “mentally capable” determination a bit more in a later post that looks at mental health concerns.  Likewise, the duties and responsibilities of the attending physician are numerous and I will continue the discussion of what the statute describes in a later post.

I will conclude this first post about statutory language with an observation.  Death as described in the EoLOA is defanged, now a technical medical procedure, even a treatment if you will, for perceived intractable suffering.  The option to seek out MAID to end suffering involved with a terminal illness has little to do with the physical pain incident to illness (statistics from Oregon bear this out) and more with the loss of dignity and quality of life, presumably incident to the progression of the disease.  Why should an elder law attorney like me be concerned about this? Because in our culture, much of the experience of aging is focused on losses and precious little attention is directed toward gratitude for our continued life, such as it may be!

The other matter that concerns me greatly in the “technocratizing” of dying and actively choosing death is that we surrender even more power to our doctors.  This has little to do with our perception of how medical technology is used to extend life, but rather is concerned with our thinking about the nature of life, including disease, dying and death.  Our doctors cannot protect us from suffering – they are only doctors after all, but they can help manage treatment of pain.

More “vocabulary terms” next week.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

When and How Should Someone Report Suspected Elder Financial Abuse or Exploitation?

Safety in Numbers

My posts about reporting elder abuse remain my most popular among readers and since it’s been a while since I’ve written on the topic, I thought it was time! I get regular calls from people about this question, often from adult children who are concerned about what is going on with a parent.  Plus, I listened to a webinar put on by the ABA last week about recognizing and preventing these scams.  Today I’m focusing on federal programs and resources.  Here’s a link to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Elder Justice Initiative to get started.

Among the presenters at the webinar were a representative from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and a prosecutor from the US DOJ Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch.  I mention these two federal resources because most of us tend to focus only on local or state law enforcement when it comes to reporting suspected financial abuse or exploitation of an elders.  One other recent detail popped up on a listserve recently, reporting a scam concerning what was represented to be an “escrow company” to the victim and who told her they were assisting in the sale of her time share in Mexico.  Apparently tens of thousands of dollars were cumulatively wired to the scammers, for the purported purpose of covering taxes and transaction fees.  I searched online and found several posts about these types of scams that sound like perfectly legitimate businesses.  One of these scammers was using the name of a legitimate Colorado business.  Couple this with a scammer’s ability to “spoof” a phone number on the recipient’s caller ID, and it’s a pretty dangerously convincing mix!

The scammers are as familiar as the rest of us with the adage “if it’s too good to be true it probably is,” but some of these scams persist, coming in many new and different forms.  The more troubling scam scenario however is the much more legitimate sounding scam, which doesn’t purport to be a “sure thing,” but instead rely on a common human tendency toward “in for a penny, in for a pound” behavior, or what economists refer to as sunk cost fallacy and psychologists call commitment bias.

Many of these scenarios involve mail fraud and wire transfers.  Read a recent press release from the DOJ about actions concerning mail schemes targeting by foreign nationals.  Last March, the CFPB issued an advisory and a report with recommendations for best practices for banks and credit unions on “how to prevent, recognize, report, and respond to financial exploitation of older Americans. Financial exploitation, the illegal or improper use of a person’s funds, property or assets, is the most common form of elder abuse and costs seniors billions of dollars per year.”  The Advisory, which contains recommendations concerning the development of internal controls for the protection against and reporting of exploitation, training of staff to prevent , detect and respond to elder financial exploitation and using appropriate technology for the detection and reporting to local, state and federal authorities, is available here.  The executive summary of the CFPB’s report begins with an important message:

Elder financial exploitation has been called the crime of the 21st century and deploying effective interventions has never been more important. Older people are attractive targets because they often have assets and regular income. These consumers may be especially vulnerable due isolation, cognitive decline, physical disability, health problems, or bereavement. Elder financial exploitation robs victims of their resources, dignity and quality of life—and they may never recover from it.

You can read more of the report here.

There are many ways that scammers defraud elders and some of these include Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance fraud (which is akin to a form of identity theft), IRS and tax scams, mail fraud and internet scams involving “sweethearts” and online dating, sweepstakes and lottery “winnings” and tech support scam.  The Justice Department also has a helpful roadmap identifying what type of scam and which federal agency to which it can be reported.

One valuable thing for people to consider in reporting an incident of suspected elder financial abuse and exploitation is this: a single victim may not have suffered a devastatingly huge loss, relative to their life savings perhaps, and it may even have been a relatively small loss, but if it is multiplied among a range of victims nationwide, what the scammers take can amount to millions of dollars.  This is why reporting remains critically important.  We are charting new ground here as many facts and figures about the incidence and forms of elder financial abuse and exploitation remain unknown due to underreporting.

That’s all for now.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

End-of-Life Options: Medical Technique Portrayed as a Right pt. 1

Ketring Lake at Dusk

For the next few posts I promise to vary my topics a bit, so I won’t be writing solely on the new Colorado law and its implications.  But for this post, I wanted to spend a bit of time on the “big picture.”  I had the privilege today of spending the morning listening to Jennifer Ballentine’s thoughtful and informative presentation on the new law and what it means in practice and policy for healthcare providers and facilities.  Many of the folks there were from the hospice and palliative care community, several different residences (skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and continuing care retirement communities) were represented and of note were the attendance of several first responders (EMS or firefighters). Perhaps in a subsequent post I will delve into the dilemmas of EMS providers who may be unaware of a person’s use of life-ending medication under the new law (as they are sometimes unaware of do not resuscitate orders).   Many different people in attendance with lots of challenging questions.   But only some of those questions could be answered by reference to the new Colorado law.

The situation with the new law was an abrupt sea change.  The day before this new law was certified by the governor all of these folks from their diverse communities were continuing to discourage very ill people from thinking and possibly acting upon suicidal thoughts and wanting to end it all.  Once the law was certified, then BAM – all that changed.  No easing into any transitional period as California and Vermont enjoyed (with their “end of life option act” and “patient choice at end of life” statutes respectively) . . .

I will try to steer clear of the pseudonymous quicksand of what these types of medical services provided are called: physician assisted suicide, physician assisted death, (medical) aid in dying, (voluntary active) euthanasia, death with dignity, but it is challenging when there is no clear marker of when living is perhaps coming to a close and dying is well-nigh.    I liked one blogger’s beef with all these euphemisms and her suggestions that we perhaps call it “assisted self-administered lethal ingestion.”  I think this descriptor is best because it is so technical sounding and our new law champions a medical technique, with precious few indicia or garb of a “right” to die.

To wind up, I will turn to a quote from the late poet, novelist and social critic James Baldwin:

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

     James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

How to identify the boundaries of death versus suicide – where are the distinctions here among all the different labels? Our new law does explain that the actions in accordance with the procedure set forth in the End of Life Options Act do not constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing, homicide or elder abuse.  Does this move our conversation forward?  Can a law do this?

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Deathbed Ethics, Proposition 106 and Remembering How to Die

Closed Shutters

Closed Shutters

We have forgotten how to die.  We have forgotten that it is death, as part of our life, which makes us human.  Death is just like the rest of our life – unpredictable and subject to constant change. That is what we have forgotten.  We have become obsessed with our identity and being “in control,” in such ways that support our limited notions of autonomy.  This is superficial, to say the least and I don’t think it has anything to do with preserving anyone’s human dignity.

In Proposition 106, physician assisted death (PAD) or physician assisted suicide is put forward as a “right” to be asserted by a limited and defined class of individuals suffering from a terminal illness who are not expected to live for more than six months.  But wait, this sounds like qualifications for a hospice script – doesn’t it?  Have people who are advancing the recognition of this “right to die” fully explored the parameters of hospice and palliative care?  I think many have not.  It is much simpler, much more straightforward and slogan-empowering to clamor for a right than it is to take a “wait and see” approach – which is what most of us end up doing anyway. Why do I bring up palliative and hospice care in this context? Because I think the need to advance any “right to die” here is superfluous to the already existing but not well-known by the public services of hospice and palliative care health professionals.

In my previous posts, I mentioned the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Washington v. Glucksberg, 502 U.S. 702, 737 (1997) and I want to follow up just a bit on that decision and its wake.  I’m thinking particularly of Justice O’Connor’s concurrence, referring to pain management palliative and hospice care:

In sum, there is no need to address the question whether suffering patients have a constitutionally cognizable interest in obtaining relief from the suffering that they may experience in the last days of their lives. There is no dispute that dying patients in Washington and New York can obtain palliative care, even when doing so would hasten their deaths. The difficulty in defining terminal illness and the risk that a dying patient’s request for assistance in ending his or her life might not be truly voluntary justifies the prohibitions on assisted suicide we uphold here.

The “right to die” in terms of PAD would appear to be promoted at the expense of the prospect of any effective management of pain.  The further juxtaposition can be seen in these two articles by leading legal scholars: Robert Burt’s “The Supreme Court Speaks – Not Assisted Suicide but a Constitutional Right to Palliative Care,” in 337 New England Journal of Medicine 1234 (1997) and Erwin Chemerinsky’s “Washington v. Glucksberg Was Tragically Wrong,” in 106 Michigan Law Review 1501 (2008).

So why do I write another post about Prop 106? Because the “right to die” as it concerns a patient’s right to end their pain . . . is simply too misleading.  Terminal pain management, about which most people want to believe this proposed legislation concerns itself – is another matter separate from “the right to die.”  This is borne out by the Oregon statistics from 2015 which I referred to in my previous post.

Let’s set the record straight here.  The information collected from Oregon about those persons choosing to fill the prescription for the life ending medications did so based on their diminished enjoyment of life, their loss of autonomy, and their perceived loss of dignity. A surprisingly small number of people mentioned “inadequate pain control” as a reason to choose assisted death from a physician.  Why might this be that pain control factored in so small a number of responses? We don’t know because the statistics available don’t offer further information.  But I think it is not a stretch to conclude that most of those folks choosing to get a scrip filled for lethal medications already had their pain pretty well managed, thanks to hospice or palliative care.

The real reasons for these folks to get the medications was to manage the psychic pain of living at the end of their life, in which their terminal illness compromised their ability to live independently, autonomously and with the dignity with which they had previously known.  This is a qualitatively different kind of pain! This pain may be incidental to the “pain of dying” but it is most certainly a pain of living, living with the uncertainty of what challenges tomorrow will bring.  We have simply forgotten this important detail!

What kind of patient autonomy do we want to protect as a matter of law and public policy? I think we need to be clear about what this law would change and how it would work, and not to be dazzled by the shine of a new “right” that has little to do with the context – medical, legal, ethical or psychological – of how such a right would be exercised.  If this Prop 106 is really about saying it is okay to take one’s own life (I don’t even like saying “commit suicide” because it is fraught with moral implications that further perpetuate the underlying loss of the person’s survivors), then let’s be clear about that.  I believe that is the implicit underlying message, but few people are comfortable with looking much under the surface of the legislation and its long-term unintended implications.

We are talking about the pain of living a life without the independence and autonomy to which we had grown accustomed and the terminal disease or condition robs the patient of that dignity of autonomy.  I will be the first to state I am not equipped to decide for another when their terminal pain has reached such a level that palliative or hospice medications will not suffice to manage the pain.  But I think the pain we are talking about is not the physical pain, which palliative and hospice care providers have become experts in managing, no we are talking about the pain of living a life, the end of which is one “we have not chosen.”  It is implicitly stating – I do not want that challenge and I choose death instead.  Let’s be honest about that choice and our ability to choose it!

In some important respects, Prop 106 presents essentially a right to die versus a right to hope.  If we are in the midst of a terminal illness, rapidly advancing in its ravages of our bodies and our abilities to function independently, we are much less likely to give up hope if we feel supported, if we are not made to feel as if we are a burden on others.  Here physician assisted death resembles the choices underlying suicide as they vary in number among different cultures across that world.  Suicide has been characterized by Durkheim as related to sociocultural factors and in particular the integration of a person in family, economic, political and religious life.   I posit that we ought to be looking to each other for assistance, for hope, especially in the face of imminent death, and not be so eager to show the door to those of us who feel they have become a burden or simply want to “choose death.”

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Obstacles to Successful Elderhood: Skilled Nursing Care

denver elder law

Dome of Aspiration

 

I’m returning to the theme I introduced a couple months back about successful elderhood and its obstacles.  Today I’m looking at institutionalized care of American elders and in particular the costs versus care conundrum.

I recently came across two unrelated articles in the space of a single day and immediately saw a connection.  The first was this article from the New York Times, about the privatization of InnovAge, formerly a not-for-profit (which used to be known as Total Longterm Care) in the Denver area and the second article from the ABA Journal, about how the imposition of routine fines having little or no impact on deterring abuses at skilled nursing facilities.

Keep in mind that skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) are some of the most regulated business in this country – regulated by both the feds through Medicare and Medicaid, as well as by state licensing and regulatory authorities.  Do these regulatory regimes lead to better outcomes?   The ABA Journal article would tend to weigh in on the “no” side of this answer. . .  That seems to be an open question, particularly in light of the shocking circumstances surrounding the death of a young mentally ill woman in SNF care – Letasha Mims, as described in the ABA Journal article above.

As an elder law attorney, I am aware of and often share the information collected by different state and local agencies about violations at nursing homes.  In case you’re wondering about Colorado nursing homes, here is a link to the CDPHE’s page about licensing and deficiencies.   Medicare has a handy tool to compare nursing homes here. You can enter a zip code and compare facilities quickly.

The story of Letasha Mims, however, makes me question the helpfulness and accuracy of that information collected by our regulatory agencies.   But the lingering question is a difficult one: when an elder or disabled person lives in a SNF which is a for-profit business, there is a nagging question about the adequacy of staffing at those facilities.    I am thinking of a recent book I came across – Elder Care Journey, (published in 2016 by SUNY Press) by Laura Katz Olson.  What Olson confronted in managing her elderly her mother’s care is something that faces each of us who has ever had to make the difficult choice of arranging for the care of a family member, like an elder parent, in a skilled nursing facility.

Olson writes eloquently about the personal journey of getting the best care for her frail mother, but what is most relevant for this discussion is the penultimate chapter of the book entitled “Peeling the Onion.”  In that chapter she looks at the system of care for elders including skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes).   She writes that the 2012 statistics indicate that sixty-nine percent of SNFs are for-profit organizations (mostly chains), but she reports that there is a recent trend toward private equity firms (like the one which is reported to have purchased InnovAge above) buying SNFs.  Olson notes that private equity firms have goals that include making quick profit so the business can be sold for a profit within five years; typically have protections against liability for substandard care which relate to the individual facility and not the chain which is the parent of the SNF; and private equity firms, unlike publicly traded companies, have little transparency about the inner workings of their assets, profits and ownership.  These important details don’t just seem to be at odds with providing adequate care, and they will likely contribute to a burgeoning number of substandard care.

Olson quotes at 152 (a 2001 study in the American Journal of Public Health) that “rates of severe deficiencies in investor-owned facilities were 40.5 percent higher than at nonprofit homes and 35.8 percent higher than at public homes.”  What will the numbers be for the present situation? This will likely be a topic of a later post. P Perhaps a relevant question for an adult child or anyone researching placement at a skilled nursing facility is the simple one of whether it is a for-profit facility and if it is, whether it is publicly-held or owned by a private equity firm.  Profit maximization for investors does not seem to be consistent with providing good care for our frail elders.

I focus on the SNF because of the institutionalized nature of such a facility and the relatively high level of medical care which is supposed to be provided.  And if you were hoping that Medicare was somehow an equalizer when it comes to insurance care for elders . . .  think again!  There is a growing shortage of doctors, particularly primary care physicians for elders, who take new Medicare patients.  For those elders in hospitals who are suffering from terminal conditions, here is a recent article from Health News, which addresses the shortage in hospitals of palliative and hospice care medical teams who are trained to discuss end-of-life issues, effectively manage patients’ pain and otherwise address the emotional and spiritual needs of those at the end of their lives.  There just isn’t enough money in providing palliative care under our Medicare program of incentivizing big intervention and the low-tech, high touch, human-fueled intervention of hospice and palliative care providers.  This reminds me of Atul Gawande’s observations in Being Mortal and Katy Butler’s book about her father and his health crises, Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

And what about Medicaid, that government long term care program that many people are curious about for their elder family members . . . Some studies have demonstrated worse outcomes for those Medicaid patients – whose doctors receive only a fraction of what other better insured patients receive.  Medicare patients didn’t seem to fare much better.  In case you’re wondering whether this divide continues, here’s an article from last month about worse outcomes for Medicare and Medicaid myocardial infarction patients.  We are spending money for these Medicare and Medicaid services, yet so many of the needs of the people receiving these services goes unmet . . .  what gives?!

Sorry, this post appears to be largely about obstacles, but perhaps they are placed before us so as to clarify what it is we need to fix for our loved ones and for ourselves.  Er, maybe this is an opportunity after all – but only if we make it one.  One thing is certain – it will not be an easy fix.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Colorado End of Life Options – A Follow-Up

denver elder law

Spring Orchid at DBG

 

I’m writing this as a follow-up to my last post, which elicited a heartfelt comment from a subscriber and a fruitful discussion on LinkedIn. . .

Voluntary euthanasia is when death is chosen by a person, when they are killed with their own expressed consent.  These types of requests and the consent needed for such must be clear.  To review a bit – passive euthanasia is when a person makes an advance directive in the form of a living will in which the person indicates the level of medical intervention – or lack thereof – in the event they are in an end-of-life scenario.  In the Colorado Medical Treatment Decision Act, Colo. Rev. Stat. 15-18-101 et seq., we distinguish between persistent vegetative state and terminal condition as the triggering circumstances for the application of the living will.  Persons dying according to the terms of their living will may direct in advance the withholding or withdrawal of certain medical interventions which would tend to prolong or sustain life. The Living Will is in essence a statement of wishes and the persons involved in providing for assisting with another’s grave medical condition must be aware of its existence and its contents.  Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is that an elder goes to a senior center or some other place to fill out a living will form, but the elder neglects to inform their family members they have done so.  No one knows of its existence or contents and so it is of no value.  This is why having “the conversation” – especially with one’s health care agent – is so valuable!

So, let’s get on with the discussion at hand.  Many of us have experience with active euthanasia in the form of “putting down” a beloved pet.  When my dear old dog Pepper was nearly paralyzed, we made the decision to euthanize her after considering the alternatives.  When two of my sons and I were with Pepper at the vet’s office (sitting on the floor with her, stroking her and telling her how much we loved her), she was injected with the drugs that would end her life.  The vet commented to me – “I wish we could do this for people.”

This is the paradox of passive and active euthanasia – that active euthanasia is more humane in that it hastens the death to alleviate the suffering, while passive euthanasia requires the withholding of the means of sustaining life – which means a person can go quickly if they are dependent on breathing support or. . . .  they will slip away slowly as they starve to death.

It occurs to me that many of us don’t think of the living will as a statement as to the form of euthanasia preference – or if there is no preference for such.  Is the living will a document that tells our loved ones to “let us go” or is it a document that gives the patient’s preference as a statement of self-determination, to be free from the unwanted interference of others?  Can it be both?

There are of course a wide variety of living will forms available.  While the documents are acceptable forms of stated preferences regarding euthanasia, different religious communities have their own preferred documents in compliance with their laws or traditions.  What is the distinction between letting someone die by not intervening and allowing a person to die by their own choice with the assistance of a doctor?  Is there really a bright line between the two?

Getting back to the “letting go” versus “self-determination” purposes of the living will, how do these play out in the context of active euthanasia or physician assisted death (as in the Colorado End-of-Life Options initiative)?  These tensions are even more pronounced in this context.  Where is the distinction between one’s not wanting to be a burden on loved ones and the subtle coercion that a gravely ill person may feel to “get on with” dying so that their loved ones can be liberated from the burdens of caring for the sick person?  I certainly am not suggesting answers.  What I am concerned about is that people seem to look for answers without regard to the question and what it entails or requires.

An exclusive focus on the self-determination rights of gravely ill people to be statutorily allowed to take their own lives – with the assistance of medical doctors – skews the discussion.  I liked Jennifer Ballentine’s article entitled “Law & Sausage: Physician Assisted Death and the Solution to Suffering.”  You can read it here.

The attraction is clear – to focus on the individual right to extend medical self-determination to include physician assisted death is a very American pastime!  We have a long tradition of championing and enshrining individual rights.  But in the context of active voluntary euthanasia, or end of life options, such exclusive focus myopically steers that discussion away from the critical context of the exercise of such a right [author’s disclaimer: I wear corrective lenses for correction of nearsightedness].  This right would certainly not exist in a vacuum.

I don’t think it is too much to consider a look at the bigger picture here and to identify in advance of our ballot choices this November the many unintended consequences which would flow from our choice.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

The Colorado End of Life Options Act – On Our Ballot This November

Spring in Assissi

Spring in Assissi

 

Will Coloradans approve the ballot measure to allow physician assisted death in Colorado?

This is an update to previous posts about (unsuccessful) proposed legislation concerning physician-assisted death in Colorado and the ballot initiative which will be put in front of Colorado voters this November.  Click here to read the Colorado Secretary of State’s final version of the initiative.  Today’s post is a further conversation about this highly-charged topic.  I enjoyed reading this recent Denver Post piece by Jennifer Brown about use of language and terminology in this initiative and the wider debate.

The first observation is that I’m using the term I have previously employed – physician assisted death.  When I typed in the term to my search engine, what appeared in the results was “physician-assisted suicide” defined here as

The voluntary termination of one’s own life by administration of a lethal substance with the direct or indirect assistance of a physician. Physician-assisted suicide is the practice of providing a competent patient with a prescription for medication for the patient to use with the primary intention of ending his or her own life.

I use the term death because it is less inflammatory, but it is – by the very nature of the procedure – suicide.  Assisted death can incorporate both physician assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, and I note this is important.  While we’re talking about terms to describe the life-ending process which is facilitated by a physician, let’s look at a few important terms to help keep the terminology straight.

Euthanasia comes from the Greek meaning “good death” and the Merriam Webster online dictionary defines it as:

 the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.

Within the definition of euthanasia are different types of euthanasia, including: voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary.  Today I consider only voluntary euthanasia which consists of two kinds – active and passive.

Passive voluntary euthanasia: When someone executes a living will to direct that no life-sustaining procedures or artificial nutrition and hydration be offered in the event a person (known as the “declarant” for purposes of a living will) is determined to be unable to provide informed consent and suffers from a persistent vegetative state or terminal condition.  This practice (with important controls promulgated by state laws) was made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990).  It was the first “right to die” case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and discussed important aspects of self-determination, liberty interests and due process in the context of Cruzan’s family’s attempts to have Nancy Cruzan’s previously expressed wishes (orally expressed, not in writing) upheld.

Active voluntary euthanasia: This differs from the widely accepted passive form in that passive euthanasia involves a refusal or withholding of treatment and active euthanasia involves an intervention to give something –  a lethal prescription from a doctor – to provide the means to end a life.  Herein lies the distinction between refusal to provide or continue to provide treatment (recognized in our living wills) and the active choice of one’s own death, or suicide.

Can there be any middle ground here?  Perhaps.  If you consider the arguments for wider acceptance and use of hospice and palliative care – these focus on the treatment of the whole person to manage pain, a terminal condition or end of life medical care, and not just from the more mainstream exclusive perspective of medicine’s focus exclusively on a patient’s medical problems, often to the detriment of the patient’s quality of life.  So here is the question – if patients have access to good quality palliative and/or hospice care at the end of life, then is assisted death really necessary?  One way of looking at this is to consider that the rights-focused physician assisted death doesn’t adequately take into account the scope and range of palliative and hospice care which is presently available.

As we continue to age and live with (read: have our lives prolonged by) more drugs and medical devices, how we choose to remove those supports (like a pacemaker or similar devices) is part and parcel of our choice of living as much as it is how we choose for ourselves (and others) how we manage the end of our lives.  Here there is a distinction between the legal terrain (like a medical POA or a living will) and the medical terrain (a do not resuscitate is a medical order requiring a doctor), but this is longevity in the U.S. and most people don’t live their lives consciously regarding these distinctions.  Maybe it’s time to broaden the conversation . . .

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Social Media Abuse of Elders

Contrast

Contrast

 

I recently came across this horrifying article published Monday in ProPublica, entitled “Federal Health Officials Seek to Stop Social Media Abuse of Nursing Home Residents.”  It seems that some staff members of nursing homes are publishing photos, audio and video recordings of some residents in the social media like Snapchat, Facebook or Instagram, or sent in text messages as multimedia attachment.  These pictures, audio and video files often depict elder residents of the facilities s in demeaning and humiliating ways so as to result in mental abuse.   The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has recently sent out a memorandum concerning this to the State Survey Directors.

Do the skilled nursing facilities have prohibitions against such intrusions in place?  Some evidently did not, but there can be little doubt that nearly all will have such protections in place soon in light of these disturbing developments.  Here’s an article about such violations in Ohio nursing facilities.

The CMS memo referred to above defines mental abuse as that abuse which:

[M]ay occur through either verbal or nonverbal conduct which causes or has the potential to cause the resident to experience humiliation, intimidation, fear, shame, agitation or degradation.  Examples of verbal or nonverbal conduct that can cause mental abuse include but are not limited to: nursing home staff taking photographs or recordings or residents that are demeaning or humiliating using any type of equipment (e.g., cameras, smart phone, and other electronic devices) and keeping or distributing them through multimedia messages or on social media networks.  Depending on what was photographed or recorded, physical and/or sexual abuse may also be identified.

ProPublica has been following this following these developments for many months and this article from December 21, 2015 details some of the incidents this mental and physical abuse of incapacitated elders perpetrate by the nursing home staff members.  In a case in New York where a nurse aide took photos of an incontinent resident’s genitals covered in fecal matter and shared them with another staff member on Snapchat, he was fired and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of willful violation  of health laws.  What I found particularly disturbing was the comment of one home’s administrator to ProPublica that “[t]echnology is a problem for us, for everybody, these days… The resident involved was not harmed but certainly it was a serious incident.”  Are incapacitated nursing home residents not entitled to any human dignity and to be free from such exploitation for someone’s entertainment?

One of the incidents described by ProPublica is from August 2015.  It occurred in a rural area of Colorado and involved a youth volunteer at a nursing home who took a selfie which showed a 108-year-old resident urinating.  The volunteer apparently shared the photo with her friends at school and the facility did not learn of the offending photo until months later.  The volunteer was not monitored by the facility but did report to the local police, and was later charged with invasion of privacy.

What is human dignity when it cannot be defended by an incapacitated elder? What is human dignity when it is not readily apparent or recognized in places where people are institutionalized for the paramount concern of their safety?

Dignity, as in the legal right, is not easily defined.  In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many references to it in our laws.  International law, specifically the international law of human rights, has much more to say about human dignity, but that is another blog post!

I will close with just a couple observations and questions. . . .

If humiliation is the opposite of being treated dignity and respect, is our system of laws really equipped to deal with this type of new frontier of the rights of incapacitated persons to be free from intrusions by others who humiliate them for sport or humor?

Is the dignity of or respect for elders a right in this context or is it overshadowed by our concerns for safety, and how does an incapacitated elder’s diminishing bailiwick of autonomy factor into this equation?

On this note, here is a link to an interesting article about the dignity of elders.  More to come on this very challenging topic.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Let’s Raise Awareness About Elder Abuse!

elder abuse awareness

Moonlight Near Westcliffe

For this last post of June, I wanted to circle back on the importance of raising awareness of elder abuse.  You can read the Presidential Proclamation on June 15, 2016, for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day right here and if you’re curious about the language of the Elder Justice Act, passed as part of the Affordable Care Act (as Title VI subtitle H, §§6701 et seq.), read this link.

In Colorado, as in nearly all other states, adult protection units are responsible for the reporting and investigation (along with law enforcement agencies) of elder abuse.  The Elder Justice Act is federal legislation which requires the U.S Department of Health and Human Services “to oversee the development and management of federal resources for protecting out seniors from elder abuse.”  Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice is charged with taking action to prevent elder abuse.

The effective coordination of these county, state and federal efforts is of course a work in progress.  What we do know about raising awareness of elder abuse and exploitation is that it will lead to more reporting of such abuse.  Here is a link to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee which links the raised awareness of such abuse to a dramatic increase in reports to local law enforcement.   This is important to bear in mind as the baby boomers begin to become a greater proportion of the cohort affected by elder abuse and exploitation.  In my practice, I have unfortunately become familiar with national and international internet scams which relieve elders of their hard-earned retirement money.  This is a particular area in which the federal government might play a unique role as so much of our law of the internet is based in federal law.

Another tragic side effect of the victimization of elders, besides the shame, victimization and impoverishment which results from financial exploitation is that these elders, along with elder victims of all types of elder abuse – including physical and sexual abuse – are likely to die much sooner than their peers who were not victimized.  But many pieces of this puzzle remain unidentified due to the lack of long term studies which collect valuable statistics about elder abuse of various types! This is of course another aspect of the importance of raising awareness.  Because so much of elder abuse still remains unreported, this is a major quality of life challenge not just for elders and their loved ones and community, but also for those of us of “a certain age” who might be looking forward to a safe and meaningful elderhood.  How can we make things better for elders at risk now and in the future?

What is elder abuse and who are its primary victims of such elder abuse? By the numbers, they are largely women and the “old” of the elder population – meaning folks over 80.  Sadly, the vast majority of the abusers are family members of the elder or trusted friends or advisors.  Because most elders live in the community – not in institutions – this is a particular challenge for all of us who are community members to become familiar with the signs so that we can report concerns about safety, suspicious behaviors and the like to local law enforcement.

First – what are the kinds of elder abuse that we’re talking about? Here is a helpful listing from the U.S. government’s Administration on Aging website, which also has many helpful resources:

  • Physical Abuse—inflicting physical pain or injury on a senior, e.g. slapping, bruising, or restraining by physical or chemical means.
  • Sexual Abuse—non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Neglect—the failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Exploitation—the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a senior for someone else’s benefit.
  • Emotional Abuse—inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts, e.g. humiliating, intimidating, or threatening.
  • Abandonment—desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.
  • Self-neglect—characterized as the failure of a person to perform essential, self-care tasks and that such failure threatens his/her own health or safety.

 

And what about the warning signs of elder abuse which we can be more aware of?

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment.
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
  • Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
  • Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
  • Behavior such as belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
  • Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs.
  • Changes in the elder’s personality or behavior, especially if the elder becomes withdrawn or despondent, questions to her or him can be very important in identifying a situation which may be the cause of the elder’s silent suffering.

Lastly, here is another helpful self-help resource specifically for Colorado residents – from Colorado Legal Services.  That’s all for now – but don’t forget . . . . Denver’s Senior law Day is coming up on Friday July 29, 2016 and will be held at the Denver Police Protective Association’s Event Center.  More details later.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org