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Health minister in discussions with Providence Health over MAID policy

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Providence Health’s policy says it doesn’t allow MAID in its facilities, “given the incompatibility of Catholic teaching with actions intended to terminate human life”

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BC’s health minister is pushing a Catholic health organization to change a policy that bars medically assisted dying in its facilities.

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It comes after a 34-year-old Vancouver woman with terminal cancer was forced to transfer from St. Paul’s Hospital to another health facility to receive the medically assisted death she requested, a story first reported by Postmedia News.

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“I believe change needs to happen,” Adrian Dix said in response to a question from Postmedia News during an unrelated news conference in Williams Lake on Tuesday. “With respect to patient transfers for MAID (medical assistance in dying), I think that patient-centred care demands that the patient’s wishes come first. And I’m working with Providence Health Care and St. Paul’s to see that that happens.”

Sam O’Neill, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 cervical cancer in April 2022, had opted for MAID in April 2023 when the pain and suffering became unbearable. Because she was being treated at St. Paul’s, which was funded by taxpayers but run by a Catholic group opposed to MAID, she was sedated to the point of unconsciousness and transferred to St. Paul’s. John’s hospice run by Vancouver Coastal Health.

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She didn’t regain consciousness again before she was given the life-ending medication. That, said her parents, Jim and Gaye O’Neill, robbed her of the ability to change her mind at the last second.

“It’s wrong,” Gaye said in a telephone interview. “Religion does not belong to health care.”

Samantha O'Neill, left, and her cousin Taryn Bodrug, before O'Neill was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer.  The family is speaking out about St.  Paul's Hospital forcing dying patients to leave its facility to access medical assistance in dying.
Samantha O’Neill, left, and her cousin Taryn Bodrug, before O’Neill was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. Photo by Taryn Bodrug /Handouts

The couple, who live in Campbellford, Ont., a small town outside of Peterborough, sent a letter to Premier David Eby, Attorney General Niki Sharma and Dix on Tuesday calling for a criminal investigation. They say Providence Health’s policy is not to administer MAID resulting in bodily harm to their daughter, and they want Providence’s board of directors to be held responsible.

“The transfer process inherently causes additional bodily harm in the final hours of each patient’s life,” they wrote in the letter. “We believe this ‘policy’ needs to stop immediately to prevent anyone else from the bodily harm, indignity and disrespect that Sam O’Neill and his family and friends were forced to endure on April 4, 2023.”

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The family reached out to the Vancouver police in the hopes of sparking a criminal investigation but they were told the department doesn’t investigate hospital-related complaints. The family hasn’t yet filed a formal complaint with Providence Health.

Providence Health’s policy says it doesn’t allow MAID in its facilities, “given the incompatibility of Catholic teaching with actions intended to terminate human life.”

Providence does allow its patients to be assessed for MAID by an external practitioner, but patients must transfer to another facility to get MAID.

MAID has been legal in Canada since 2016 but federal legislation doesn’t force any person or health-care provider to carry out medically assisted death. Since 2016, 402 patients in Providence Health facilities — including St. Paul’s Hospital, which is getting a $2 billion replacement in 2027 — has made formal requests for MAID and 131 have followed through with a transfer to other facilities.

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As for Dix’s promise that talks are underway with Providence Health, Gaye was skeptical.

“When we see (change) happen is when we’ll believe it’s happened,” she said.

A policy change at Providence Health, Gaye said, would provide some solace to the family knowing no one else would go through the traumatic forced transfer their daughter endured.

“It’s going to take a long time before we feel at peace,” she said. “But as long as this injustice continues, we are not going to rest.”

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