California veterans forced to leave home to ask for assisted dying


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They have served the nation on distant and often hostile shores, putting their bodies and minds at risk for their country.

Now, in the twilight of their lives, residents of the Yountville Veterans Home in Napa County are asking for the opportunity to end their life if they are terminally ill, at peace, at home, in their own beds.

The 625 residents and their spouses are denied access to state law on assisted dying. A group representing the residents of the house went to court to try to change this.

Another 2,000 aging and disabled veterans and spouses with disabilities are also banned from life-ending drugs at state facilities in Fresno, Barstow, Redding and other cities. It is because California End of life option law conflicts with federal law – so the state’s veterans agency bans it, fearing the loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Without the same rights accorded to other Californians under the law, the only option for veterans is to leave – or stay, and risk misery. If the veteran leaves, his spouse has to leave too and cannot come back.

“I saw three of my friends die here, who were in pain and in pain. This is unacceptable, ”said Jim Thomas, 86, a decorated Vietnam War-era US Air Force officer and pilot who lives with his wife, Jensena, 80, at the Yountville Veterans Home in the United States. Napa County, the oldest and largest residential veterinary facility in the country. .

“The last thing someone needs when you’re terminally ill is to be told to move. And you can’t protect your spouse, ”said Thomas, one of the residents who sued to try to end the police. Although he is still in good health, he wishes to have access to the option in the future. “You are already in pain.

They don’t want to ask friends, children or grandchildren to greet them during such a sad and deeply personal experience, which also requires many procedural steps to perform, Jensena added. And leaving means that the surviving spouse loses not only a partner but their home.

Yountville House, a red-tiled Mission Revival complex nestled against the oak-strewn Mayacamas Mountains, provides an affordable retreat for aging, disabled or homeless veterans of WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Founded in 1884, the house has a one-year admission wait; the average age of residents is 80 years old.

The house provides a safe retreat for Jim Thomas, who, as Air Force captain, has carried out missions in Japan, Southeast Asia, and remote Pacific islands. Awarded two praise medals for his commendable accomplishments, he has repeatedly flown large Douglas C-124 propeller transport planes, nicknamed “Old Shakey”, in perilous fog. Once, after his plane’s engine exploded over the ocean and he lost his navigation skills, he landed the plane safely on a small atoll. Another time, after taking off with a dangerously overloaded cargo of Nike anti-aircraft missiles, he saved his crew by narrowly missing a cliff.

Now her life is quieter and more comfortable, in a bedroom decorated with matching blue bedspreads, teddy bears, Bibles, and family photos. On the wall, a pair of faded pink pointe shoes, a souvenir of Jensena’s career as a professional ballerina.

“One of the reasons we moved here was to make sure my wife,” a breast cancer survivor, “had a place to live for the rest of her life,” he said.

Complainant James Musson, a former US Army Intelligence Corps special agent in Frankfurt, Germany, also cherishes his room. On display is his Vietnam War-era military nameplate, an intelligence school diploma, and his discharge papers.

“It’s home. It’s familiar, ”said Musson, 79, who has rheumatoid arthritis, interstitial lung disease, gout and shoulder bursitis. “You look and see the beautiful campus and the great Napa Valley. It doesn’t really get better than that.

Musson also fears that if the veterans left the house to die, they would lose the right to be buried in its historic 11-acre cemetery, a resting place for combatants dating from the Seminole Wars. The cemetery only accepts burials for residents of the Veterans’ Home and their eligible dependents.

“It’s important to me because it’s not just for me, but for the other members of the house,” Musson said.

The ban on assisted dying was enacted a few weeks after the state’s assisted dying law was passed. The law – inspired after East Bay resident Brittany Maynard, 29, had to move to Oregon to end her life and avoid suffering from brain cancer – was created specifically to allow terminally ill California residents to obtain medication to hasten their death and to die at home.

The California Department of Veterans Affairs, known as CalVet, issued an emergency regulation stating that any terminally ill resident intending to take the drug “must leave the veterans’ home”. If a veteran changes his mind, he could be readmitted, he said.

CalVet homes are not required to participate in the law, used by 1,816 Californians since it came into effect in 2016, said Simona Taylor, CalVet’s deputy attorney general, in a hearing earlier this month before the Napa County Superior Court. The end-of-life law has a specific “waiver” provision, she noted.

“No facility, no doctor can be commissioned to provide this service,” Taylor said. “No one has the right to receive medical assistance in dying in a particular place. “

The problem, according to CalVet officials, is that state law conflicts with federal law. They say the agency could lose funds if it violates the 1997 law Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act, which prohibits the money being used “to pay for items and services (including aid) the purpose of which is to induce (or help induce) the suicide, euthanasia or compassionate murder of every person “.

Although largely funded by state taxpayers, about a quarter of the total household budget comes from the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans would not use CalVet’s doctors, staff or resources to obtain and use the life-ending drugs, said attorney Matthew Vafidis of San Francisco firm Holland & Knight LLP, which represents the veterans. fighters. Instead, residents would hire outside doctors.

The opt-out provision of the end-of-life law, he added, was intended for facilities with religious objections, such as Catholic hospitals, not state agencies.

Like California, Colorado and Vermont require residents of veterans’ homes to leave facilities if they wish to end their lives, according to Kaiser Health News. In Washington, veterans can stay if the facility allows, according to End of Life Washington’s Judy Kinney.

Vafidis said CalVet could honor vets’ wishes and still comply with federal rules by keeping all end-of-life funds in a separate operating and financial system. But in an August court brief, state attorneys said it was impractical to create and maintain an account paid only from non-federal funds and dedicated solely to assisted death care. .

So far, the court sided with the state. In an interim ruling issued Oct. 13, “This is an emotionally and morally charged issue, but I must put it aside and focus on the law,” County Superior Court Judge Monique Langhorne said. from Napa.

Veterans say they are now deciding their next step, in the time they have left. Already, one of the original complainants has died, after a slow decline due to congestive heart failure.

“It’s kind of a hopeless feeling,” Jensena said. “Can you imagine going to a dismal hotel room?” No.”

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