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Terminally Ill Patients Consider Options As California Right-To-Die Law Is Enacted

(KPIX 5) -- Terminally ill patients in the Bay Area and across California now have a new option to relieve their suffering as the state has become the fifth in the nation to enact a right-to-die law. Meanwhile, major heath providers are preparing to fulfill patients' wishes.

Recently, Bay Area resident Elizabeth Wallner leafed through a pamphlet provided to her by her medical provider, explaining an medical option never before offered in the state. The 52-year-old single mom has stage four cancer, and should it prove terminal, Wallner is considering the possibility of ending her own life with specially-prescribed medication.

Wallner's potential decision just became legal in California. The End of Life Option Act, passed last year, went into effect June 9.

"I get to make that decision on my own," explained Wallner. "I've decided a lot about my treatment so far. I continue to make decisions about my treatment and I think this is just a continuation of that."

Since the legislation was passed, Wallner's healthcare provider, Kaiser, along with Sutter Health and other major medical groups, hospitals and doctors across the state have been preparing to help terminally ill patients and their medical caregivers navigate the newly-enacted law.

Sutter Health's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Lockhart says the process is well described in the legislation. Sutter Health, which serves about 3.3 million patients statewide, has offered training and support to its doctors and staff. Lockhart stressed care for the patient is Sutter's number one concern.

"In anticipation of the End of Life Option Act, we have undertaken a number of activities, most importantly the education of our physicians, through a series of seminars, web access, questions and answers," said Lockhart. "Our staff engaged in home care and hospice are actually required to take these educational modules.  What is important to recognize in the implementation of a law such as the End of Life Option Act is that these decisions that patients and their families are making are very, very intense and very, very intensely personal. And our role as caregivers is to support them throughout their lives from birth to the end of life."

Sutter is also providing support to its doctors and caregivers who do not want to prescribe the medication. The legislation does not require medical care providers to participate. Some hospitals and doctors have already said they will not.

"The strength of this legislation is that if there are those that are opposed," explained Diaz. "They would simply never apply for it."

It is a position Dan Diaz says he respects. Diaz and his late wife, Brittany Maynard, sparked a national debate when the San Francisco couple went public with her terminal brain cancer battle and moved to Oregon, a state that has had End of Life Legislation in place for decades. Maynard became a new voice in the End of Life Option debate when videos she made and posted on-line gained a worldwide audience.

She passed away, assisted by medication, in 2014. The still-grieving Diaz said he is both proud and relieved the legislation has passed and his wife's legacy lives on.

"Brittany spoke up to try to make a difference," explained Diaz. "She had no idea that 12 million hits later on YouTube all of a sudden Brittany Maynard is known across the country.

It is an outcome Wallner fought for as well. She said she will continue to fight cancer with every single option she is medically given but if that doesn't work out Wallner says she will exercise her final medical decision.

"Blessedly, I don't actually need the medication at this point. I am, for all intents and purposes, as healthy as I could be possibly with stage four cancer," said Wallner. "But what it really means is that if that changes that I will have the option of a death that I will have some measure of control over. Cancer has taken away a hell of a lot of my life."

KPIX 5 reached out to Kaiser for comment on this story and a Kaiser spokesperson provided the following statement:

At Kaiser Permanente, we are committed to supporting the physical, emotional and spiritual health of each patient at the end of life. We encourage our patients to have thoughtful conversations with their families, loved ones and doctors about their end-of-life wishes and plans. We are working to ensure the best implementation of California's new End of Life Options Act. Part of that involves making sure participating physicians and employees know how to comply with the law's requirements. Physician participation is not mandatory. We expect Kaiser Permanente physicians to be ready to implement the law when it goes in to effect.

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