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More than 300 people have applied to end their lives in Victoria since the state’s voluntary assisted dying laws came into effect in June last year, and at least 124 have done so. The Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Review Board’s inaugural annual report, tabled in state parliament, shows 124 terminally ill Victorians legally ended their lives between June 19 last year and June 30 this year, swamping Premier Daniel Andrews’s June 2019 estimate of “around a dozen” people using the laws to die in their first year of existence. Permits to obtain lethal medication were issued to 231 people over the same period. The numbers have prompted concern from a group of eminent doctors, who say the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inadequacies in the aged-care system and state Department of Health and Human Services which give little cause for confidence in VAD safeguards administered by DHHS.

The Australian Care Alliance, which opposes VAD, said the report raised “far more questions” than it answered. It said it was unclear how many doctors had participated in the process of sanctioning deaths under the laws, how long deaths took if there were complications in the dying process, how many of those who died were alone, and what proportion of applicants underwent palliative care assessment and treatment prior to opting for VAD. Emergency physician and former AMA vice-president Stephen Parnis said the pandemic had made clear that regulations governing aged care were “hopelessly inadequate”. “How can we have any confidence that the so-called safeguards for the dying are any better?” Dr Parnis asked. Geriatrician Mark Yates said professionals charged with the delivery of safe, ethical care for the frail and aged felt “unsupported in the current environment”.

Specialist physician John Daffy said Victorians had been promised dramatic improvement in palliative care services when the VAD laws passed in 2017. “In the three years since that promise, little has changed,’’ Dr Daffy said. “Access to palliative care has not improved, and VAD should not be the only option.’’ Self-administration permits for lethal medication were issued to 201 applicants and practitioner administration permits were issued to 30, while 134 applications were withdrawn due to the death of the applicant. Medication was dispensed to 154 people for self-administration, with 104 applicants dying by their own hand and 20 having the lethal medication administered by a medical practitioner. Forty-six people ended their lives under the laws between June 19 and December 31 last year, while 78 did so in the first six months of this year. The average age of those who died was 71, with ages ranging between 32 and 100.

Of those who died, 78 per cent had been diagnosed with a malignant condition. Half of all applicants proceeded from their first request to begin being assessed for eligibility to their final request for the medication within 19 days, with most permits then issued within two days. To be eligible for voluntary assisted dying, Victorians need to show evidence they have an incurable and advanced disease, illness or medical condition that is expected to cause death within six months (or within 12 months for a neurodegenerative condition). They also need to prove they are experiencing suffering they consider “intolerable”, have decision making capacity, are an adult, and an Australian citizen or permanent resident who has lived in Victoria for at least 12 months. Last December, Western Australia became the second Australian jurisdiction to pass voluntary assisted dying laws.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports