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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

With Senate Divided, Supporters Struggle To Find Deal On End-Of-Life

As members of the Senate Health Care Committee struggled to find a political path forward to salvage an end-of-life bill, they ejected reporters and lobbyists from the room.

The unusual move to meet behind closed doors came as Committee Chairwoman Claire Ayre, D-Addison, sought advice on how to proceed when the bill hits the floor in a deeply divided Senate.

“What’s the best strategy to have a death with dignity bill in this state?” she asked. “Are we all in agreement on that?”

Ayer and her committee support a comprehensive end of life bill, modeled after a law in Oregon. The bill, which has passed the House, contains safeguards – such as requiring a second opinion on a patient’s terminal condition – that sponsors say are needed to prevent potential abuses.

But the Senate in February was split 15-15 on the bill, with Lt. Gov Phil Scott casting the deciding vote against it. The Senate then adopted a stripped down version that simply grants doctors immunity from criminal prosecution if patients overdose on medication the doctors prescribe.

One potential swing vote is Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington. He’s authored an amendment that says a terminal patient with three months to live can request the medication. Hartwell’s amendment does not include many of the provisions in the Oregon law.

Hartwell does not support the second-opinion language.

“This is a choice bill,” he said. “You don’t need a second opinion. As soon as you get to a second opinion, the choice is gone,” he said.

Hartwell told the committee he would not compromise further.

“I’m just being honest,” he said. “This is what I can do. It’s a big stretch for me.”

That left the Health Committee with several strategic choices: Support the Hartwell amendment; or support a different amendment authored by Ayre that was much more similar to the original bill already rejected by the Senate February.

Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, indicated he wanted to vote for the Hartwell amendment, just to keep the bill alive.

“I could probably, on the merits, hold my nose and live with the Hartwell amendment,” he said.

The committee also discussed voting down the House bill and agreeing to a conference committee that would work out the differences between the two chambers. But a conference committee would mean the end of the bill, because the panel that names the Senate members to the conference committee is opposed to the bill, and would stack the committee against it.

As the committee was mulling its choices, Ayre received a note from Jennifer Carbee, a staff member in the Legislative Counsel’s office.

“Wait a minute, our counsel has just informed me that I have the right to ask people to leave so we can meet with counsel,’’ Ayre said.

With that, she asked reporters and lobbyists to leave the room.

But Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said Ayer was wrong to go behind closed doors. “I’m surprised, I didn’t think Senate rules allowed for meetings that would not be public unless it was in executive session,” he said.