Better palliative care needed, federal panel hears

Document on medically assisted dying will help guide the government in coming months

OTTAWA — The terminally ill need better access to palliative care, Canadians have told a federal panel that studied medically assisted dying.
The federal health and justice ministers received the 134-page panel report Tuesday — a document that will help guide the government in coming months on the high-profile issue.

The report, commissioned by the previous government, will be translated before its public release, likely early in the new year.

While the panel of outside experts heard differing opinions on many aspects of assisted dying, there was near unanimity on the desire for more robust palliative care, said member Benoit Pelletier, a University of Ottawa law professor.

“Almost everyone agreed on the fact that there should be better access to palliative care,” Pelletier said Tuesday in an interview.
People told the panel it “needs to be amongst the very important options that are available to people near the end of life,” added Dr. Harvey Chochinov, a palliative care specialist who also served on the three-member panel.

As for exactly how such care could be improved, Pelletier said: “That’s a major question.”

The panel also delved into the need to protect the vulnerable in any assisted dying regime, effective monitoring and reporting practices, and the issue of institutions that refuse to help people end their lives, Pelletier said.

“It covers everything we have heard as a panel in Canada or abroad,” he said. “All the points of view are expressed in the report.”

With the research in hand, parliamentarians will conduct a quick, two-month consultation on medically assisted dying as part of the Trudeau government’s plan to have a new law crafted, studied, debated and passed by June.

Despite the rush, government House leader Dominic LeBlanc says he’s confident the process will be sufficient to build a national consensus on the life-and-death issue.

The timeline might yet become even more rushed if the Supreme Court of Canada rejects the new Liberal government’s request for a six-month extension to craft a new law.

Last February, the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition on doctor-assisted death and gave the federal government a year to come up with a new law recognizing the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.

LeBlanc says the last-minute rush could have been avoided had the previous Conservative government adopted a Liberal motion last March to create a special parliamentary committee that would have been mandated to consult and report back with draft legislation by mid-July.

But, apart from setting up the external panel in July, the Conservatives did nothing on the file and now the new government has little time to fill the legal void.

“It was our hope that this work would have properly been done last spring. The previous Parliament chose not to accept our suggestion,” LeBlanc said Tuesday after a cabinet meeting.

“So we have the deadline we have. That being said, we are very confident that if the Supreme Court considers and accepts our request for an extension, we can undertake the proper and appropriate process to build the kind of national consensus that’s important on an issue … that’s this sensitive.”

The Supreme Court has not yet responded to the request for more time. While the government has asked for an extension until August, LeBlanc said the new law will need to be passed by the end of June, before Parliament breaks for the summer.

The government last week struck a special, joint House of Commons-Senate committee that is to consult broadly on the issue and report back with recommendations for legislative change by the end of February. Justice Department officials will then draft a law which will have to go through the normal legislative process of debate, clause-by-clause study by the Commons justice committee and votes in both the Commons and Senate.

The joint committee will have the outside panel report to guide its deliberations, as well as one from a provincial-territorial expert advisory group on physician-assisted dying, which issued 43 recommendations that governments should take into account.

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