Victoria MP seeks to improve 'desperate' state of palliative care

As published in the Times Colonist, February 7, 2016

The right to quality palliative care has emerged a key concern as Ottawa examines how to implement legislation on doctor-assisted death, says Victoria MP Murray Rankin.

“At the end of life, having meaningful, compassionate pain management and people who are aware of how to implement that is really critical,” said Rankin, the NDP’s justice critic. “And the more palliative care that’s available, perhaps less people will see the need to access physician-assisted dying services.”

In a landmark unanimous decision last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a doctor’s help.

The court suspended its decision for a year to give Parliament a chance to figure out how to respond to the ruling. The government requested a six-month extension.

Instead, on Jan. 15, the Supreme Court added four months to the federal government’s Feb. 6 deadline for producing a new law on doctor-assisted death, but with an exemption for anyone who wants to ask a judge to end their life earlier.

A special joint committee of 11 MPs — six Liberals, three Conservatives and two New Democrats — and five senators is advising Parliament on how to bring in the new law.

The committee, of which Rankin is a member, has heard from 62 expert witnesses and hundreds of Canadians. A report is being drafted for release Feb. 25.

“We have heard loud and clear, from every witness, that where Canadians come together is on the need for better palliative care,” said Rankin, who calls the current state of palliative care in the country “desperate.”

“Three in 10 Canadians have access to palliative care,” he said.

At the final hearing in the public setting Thursday, Rankin introduced a package of five motions on how to improve palliative care for Canadians.

“I’ve been saying this whole physician-assisted dying work has to have two components,” Rankin said. The first is the terms and conditions of doctor-assisted dying, which includes protection for the vulnerable. The second is palliative care.

“They have to go together,” he said. “And that’s why I made a point of tabling the motions in public, so Canadians know we acknowledge both aspects are critical.”

The motions package includes a national strategy with funding earmarked for palliative care, a national awareness campaign, a call for culturally and spiritually appropriate palliative care for indigenous people, and expansion of government compassionate care benefits for caregivers.

“It’s fine to say we believe in palliative care, but I’m looking for dedicated funding and a national palliative care strategy,” Rankin said.

“I want action.”

He acknowledges improved palliative care is part of the Liberal government’s platform, but says tabling the motion was a deliberate attempt to force accountability.

“I want the law that comes out of our recommendations — assuming Parliament agrees with us and implements our recommendations — I want there to be clear direction in our report to spend money and put meaningful action behind palliative care.”

The committee is working at a feverish pace, Rankin said.

“We need to get this bill passed and in law by June 4. That’s what the Supreme Court deadline means.”

Meanwhile, more Victoria voices are speaking out on the issue.

Dying With Dignity launched a chapter in Victoria last week headed by founders Jeffrey Brooks, Ellen Agger and John Priddle.

The national non-profit organization says it launched a Victoria chapter to give “a local voice to those who want better end-of-life choices.”

The chapter’s founders say they intend to educate and advocate on behalf of the more than 320 Dying With Dignity supporters in Greater Victoria.

On Monday, Brooks and Agger made submissions to the special joint committee on physician-assisted dying.

“Palliative care is actually physician-assisted dying,” said Brooks, a palliative care volunteer and caregiver coach.

“So what we are really talking about is physician-assisted death. In effect, we are asking for medical support for the whole journey, up to and including the last breath.”