With the enthusiastic support of Compassion and Choices (which promotes legalizing assisted suicide throughout the US), the first Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (PCHETA) was introduced in Congress in 2016 to allow millions of dollars in federal grants to, in the bill’s words, “increase the number of permanent faculty in palliative care at accredited allopathic and osteopathic medical schools, nursing schools, social work schools, and other programs, including physician assistant education programs, to promote education and research in palliative care and hospice, and to support the development of faculty careers in academic palliative medicine.”
While palliative care has been traditionally defined as “compassionate comfort care that provides relief from the symptoms and physical and mental stress of a serious or life-limiting illness” and hospice care as “compassionate comfort care (as opposed to curative care) for people facing a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less, based on their physician’s estimate”, the PCHETA bill may radically change such care.
I started writing about the potential dangers with the PCHETA bill in Congress in 2018 when it was passed by the US House of Representatives and sent to a Senate Committee for approval. The PCHETA stalled there, thought to be at least partially due to concerns by some U.S. senators about the bill’s potential problems with hastening of death and legalized assisted suicide despite a “clarification” in the bill that that “None of the funds made available under this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) may be used to provide, promote, or provide training with regard to any item or service for which Federal funding is unavailable under section 3 of Public Law 105–12 (42 U.S.C. 14402)” such as assisted suicide, euthanasia or mercy killing.
So after the bill stalled, a second “clarification” was added to the Senate bill (now S. 2080) in July, 2019 that states “Sec. 5(b) ADDITIONAL CLARIFICATION.—As used in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act), palliative care and hospice shall not be furnished for the purpose of causing, or the purpose of assisting in causing, a patient’s death, for any reason.” (Emphasis added)
This second clarification is critical because, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops representative Greg Schleppenbach, has written:
“This provision is important because for the first time anywhere in federal law or regulations it explicitly states that palliative and hospice care cannot be furnished for the purpose of causing or assisting in causing death. These protective provisions were added as a condition of our support for this bill.” (Emphasis added)
But on October 28, 2019, the House PCHETA (HR 647) bill that does NOT contain the second clarification was reintroduced and quickly passed by the US House of Representatives on a voice vote and sent to the Senate for approval. That bill is now in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. (Senators can now be contacted by even email.)
OPPOSITION TO THE PCHETA BILL CONTINUES
Even with the second clarification, many groups continue to voice concern about the PCHETA bill because many of us nurses and doctors are seeing unethical practices such as assisted suicide, terminal sedation, voluntary stopping of eating, drinking (VSED) and even spoon feeding, etc. being used to cause or hasten death but often called palliative or “comfort care” for such patients.
We worry that the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (2019) can allow federal funding to teach and even institutionalize such unethical practices without sufficient oversight, safeguards or penalties.
Julie Grimstad of the Healthcare Advocacy and Leadership Organization (HALO) also voices concerns about funding new palliative care and hospice programs, citing the 2019 Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General report titled “Vulnerabilities in Hospice” that documented serious problems.
She also cites Dr. Farr A. Curlin, a palliative medicine specialist at Duke University, who warns that:
“When the goal of HPM (Hospice and Palliative Medicine) shifts from helping patients who are dying to helping patients die, practices that render patients unconscious or hasten their death no longer seem to be last-resort options,” [emphasis added]
Whether or not the omission of the second clarification in the bill sent to the Senate was intentional, the omission validates the genuine concern many of us have that the traditional end of life care ethic to neither hasten nor postpone dying is rapidly being replaced by “quality of life” judgments, economic concerns and patient “choice” to die.