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California's new rules for obtaining end-of-life drugs

SAN DIEGO -- California's new law allowing life-ending drugs for the terminally ill has the strictest requirements of any of the five states that permit such prescriptions.

The law in the nation's most populous state goes into effect June 9. It was approved following the widely publicized case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon so she could legally end her life in 2014.

Dr. Eric Walsh, the Oregon physician who prescribed the medication to Maynard and 19 others, says he believes terminally ill patients should have the option.

Dr. Jon LaPook reports on aid-in-dying, a con... 13:36

"When somebody's facing the end of their life shouldn't they be in control? Shouldn't I be able to help them when they're suffering, and the burden of living becomes intolerable to them?" Walsh said. He spoke to CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook for a "60 Minutes" report on Maynard's death and the aid-in-dying movement.

Dr. Daniel Mirda of the Association of Northern California Oncologists opposed the bill because he did not think it was a doctor's place to weigh in.

"I think everyone has that personal, ethical dilemma because we're not really taught in medical school to cause someone's death, and yet we certainly think society is moving toward wanting the option," Mirda said.

Now he says he plans to decide about patients' requests on a case by case basis.

"The majority of physicians, it seems, are neutral, nervous, not comfortable prescribing it, but are not going to stop someone from seeking out another physician for help to do this," he said.

In addition to some doctors' uneasiness or outright opposition to prescribing lethal doses of drugs for the terminally ill, there are concerns that the new law could lead to hasty decisions, misdiagnosis, and even waning support by insurers for palliative care, in which dying people can be sedated to relieve their suffering.

The law has numerous requirements to obtain a prescription for end-of-life drugs, intended to reduce the possibility of its use for the wrong purposes. Here are some questions and answers about California's new law:

Who will be eligible to get such prescriptions?

Patients must be at least 18 and given only six months or less to live. Two doctors must sign off on the diagnosis and deem the patient mentally competent.

What does a patient need to do to request a prescription for life-ending drugs?

The patient must be able to make an oral request for the prescription to their primary care doctor twice and 15 days apart. The person must also make a written request.

Can the caretaker give the person the drugs?

No. Under the law, the person must be able to administer the drugs themselves without help.

Does insurance cover life-ending drugs in California?

The law does not require private insurance companies to cover the cost. The drugs will be covered under California's state Medicaid program, Medi-Cal. Federal programs such as Medicare and the Veterans Administration will not cover them, since the practice is not allowed under federal law.

How much does it cost?

A common drug used for such purposes, secobarbital, can run up to $5,000 for a lethal dose. It is known by the brand name as Seconal.

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