Covenant Health exclusion on assisted death condemned

An advocate for physician-assisted death is condemning a decision which will allow Covenant Health to opt out of provincial legislation regulating the practice.

Transferring patients would be 'unfortunate,' says Dying with Dignity Edmonton co-chair Bradley Peter

A woman holds the hand of her mother who is dying from cancer during her final hours at a palliative care hospital in Winnipeg. Picture taken July 24, 2010. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

Advocates for physician-assisted death are condemning a decision which will allow Covenant Health to opt out provincial regulations on the practice.

 The Supreme Court of Canada ordered the federal government to have a law in place allowing physician-assisted death by June 6. But the bill addressing that order still faces a battle in the Senate, so it appears unlikely the deadline will be met. Meanwhile, provincial governments are still grappling with how to address regulations for the new law. 

'It's a fairly huge problem,' -said assisted-death advocate Bradley Peter.

The Alberta government has said Convenant Health — a Catholic-run and publicly funded health organization — will be allowed to opt out for conscience reasons. Patients at hospitals and continuing-care facilities run by Covenant Health will be transferred to other health facilities if they seek a physician-assisted death. 

 A debate on assisted dying is planned in the Alberta legislature Tuesday afternoon.

"We have known for some time that Covenant Health is opposed to having any form of medically-assistance in dying in their facilities, which is really unfortunate," said Bradley Peter, a member of the board of Dying with Dignity and the co-chair of its Edmonton chapter.

A number of communities across Alberta, including Camrose, Vegreville, Bonnyville and Banff, only have access to Covenant Health facilities. Furthermore, the company manages 71 of 79 palliative care beds in Edmonton.

"I don't know if people realize how pervasive Covenant Health is across the province, but there are some communities that only have Covenant Health," said Peter. "It's a fairly huge problem." 

The provincial announcement Monday on Covenant Health comes after Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith publicly condemned physician-assisted death in February. He indicated that Covenant Health would not allow patients to end their lives with the help of a doctor. 

What does transfer of care mean?

"It remains to be seen exactly what a transfer of care actually means," Peter said during a Tuesday morning interview on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"What we can guess is that in some cases, an individual who has a grievous or irremediable illness might actually be required to leave the Covenant Health facility that they are receiving care in, and go somewhere else.

"And I think that would be really unfortunate." 

Peter said the logistics of executing a transfer of care are further complicated by growing demand for a small number of palliative care beds available in Alberta. 

"Most of the requests for assistance in dying will come from patients in palliative care, so it's really unfortunate that there is this issue where there's not great access to palliative care, so if someone wants to find another bed, that's very difficult." 

While assisted dying advocates fully support individual conscience rights, large corporations should not be provided blanket exclusions from the ruling, Peter said.

Rules need to be even-handed

"I think for individual doctors, conscience rights are really important. We would never want a doctor who is uncomfortable with this practice to be forced to provide that. But the question becomes, does an entire institution, an entire building, have a conscience right?" 

Peter commended the NDP for tackling the issue. But he said the rules need to be even-handed, and ensure access for all patients, no matter where they live. 

"I think it's important that we watch very closely over the next few days to see exactly what these plans that the province and Alberta Health Services have put forward look like," said Peter.

But overall, Peter said he is pleased that Alberta will have some form of assisted dying care available, so at least individuals will no longer have to seek an exemption from a court just to receive an assisted death.