End-of-life issues appear to be taking on a new life of their own. Following
the spectacle surrounding the Terry Schiavo case, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, prompting legislators in Washington state to start considering similar legislation of their own.
In the midst of this swirl of controversy, a statewide grass-roots group concerned with end-of-life issues says Idahoans may not understand the full extent of their options in the face of final decisions concerning death.
Cheryl Simpson-Walker serves as Director for the Idaho-based A Better Way Coalition. She says the organization was energized by a 2002 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which issued Idaho a "D-plus" grade for quality of care and options in dying. Since then, the coalition has grown to the point where it now includes 150 organizations and individuals that, according to the group's Web site, are committed to "promoting compassionate end-of-life care in Idaho. We are a statewide end-of-life coalition providing knowledge, tools, and mechanisms for palliative end-of-life care. The whole person--body, mind, and spirit, heart and soul is the focus of our work." While not taking a specific position on doctor-assisted suicide, the group says, "we are really promoting compassionate end-of-life care through education."
Simpson-Walker believes that, on the basis of a recent survey, few Idahoans understand their rights to hospice or at-home care. Currently, she said, "Only 30 percent of us die at home, instead of nursing homes or hospitals," although most people prefer the former.
Physician bias provides one barrier, while ignorance about the extent of Medicare/Medicaid coverage provides another. Also, Simpson-Walker says few people write out a legally binding Advanced Directive, which leaves their families and physicians in limbo.
A Better Way Coalition is currently pressuring members of the Idaho Legislature to enact a statewide, online, password-protected Advanced Directive and Living Will registry, under the supervision of the Secretary of State. Such a registry would allow for quicker access to records of patients' wishes across the state and the rest of the nation as well. Simpson-Walker says the Attorney General's Office is already involved with helping draft the legislation.
Simpson-Walker urges Idahoans to "talk to your family and friends about what matters to you" about end of life alternatives. "We need a higher quality of life when we're completing life," she says. "We need to be able to say goodbye in a way that honors our lives, and be able to leave knowing that we're a valued person, that our pain will be managed, and that our family members will be supported."