An examination room at a doctors office.

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Nearly 400 People Used California Assisted Death Law in 2017

Of the 374 who died, about 90 percent were more than 60 years of age, and about 83 percent were receiving hospice or similar care.

June 22, 2018 - 5:18 pm

By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California health officials reported Friday that 374 terminally ill people took drugs to end their lives last year, the first full year after a law made the option legal.

The California Department of Public Health said 577 people received aid-in-dying drugs in 2017, but not everyone used them. The law allows adults to obtain a prescription for life-ending drugs if a doctor has determined that they have six months or less to live. They can self-administer the drugs.

Of the 374 who died, about 90 percent were more than 60 years of age, about 95 percent were insured and about 83 percent were receiving hospice or similar care.

The numbers come as the law is caught up in a court battle. A judge earlier this year halted it, saying it was adopted illegally during a special legislative session. An appeals court has since reinstated it.

The figures are more than double those from the first six months after the law went into effect June 9, 2016. In those early months 191 people received life-ending drugs, while 111 people took them and died.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled in May that the law is unconstitutional because it was adopted illegally when lawmakers passed it during a special Legislative session called to address other matters. The state contends that the law was legally passed during a special legislative session dedicated to health issues.

The Fourth District Court of Appeals in Riverside last week stayed that decision and reinstated the End of Life Option, but gave opponents of its decision until July 2 to file objections.

The law passed in California after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who was dying from brain cancer, had to move to Oregon in 2014 so she could end her life. Doctor-assisted deaths are also legal in Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

Critics argue the law can prompt hasty decisions and misdiagnoses and less use of palliative care, in which dying people can be sedated to relieve suffering. Supporters say it gives people the choice to ease what otherwise might be a lingering and painful death.

State health officials reported Friday that 632 people started to use the law last year by making two verbal requests to their physicians at least 15 days apart. The data comes from death certificates and forms doctors were required to submit.

It said 241 doctors prescribed the drugs last year.

The 374 people who died include 11 people who were prescribed drugs in 2016 but died last year.

Another 86 people were prescribed the lethal drugs but died without taking them, while the fate of the remaining 128 people wasn't reported.

Of those who died from the drugs, nearly 10 percent were under 60; 77 percent were 60-89; and the rest were older than 90. The median age was 74.

About 89 percent were white, 51 percent were women, and 73 percent had some college education.

About 68 percent had cancer, while others had ALS or Parkinson's diseases, cardiovascular or respiratory diseases.