'It's a start': Family of assisted-dying patient hopeful about new Covenant Health policy

The family of Doreen Nowicki says Covenant Health’s revised assisted-dying policy is a first step toward preventing patient suffering.

Policy allows all assisted-dying patients to undergo assessments on Covenant property

Doreen Nowicki, a 66-year-old ALS patient, had to have her assisted-dying assessment on an Edmonton sidewalk in May 2017 because of a Covenant Health decision. (Nowicki family)

The family of Doreen Nowicki says Covenant Health's revised assisted-dying policy, prompted by her traumatic ordeal, is a first step toward preventing patient suffering.

"At the very least, (assisted-dying) assessments are being able to be done at Covenant," said Nowicki's daughter, Michele Emmanuel. "So that's a start. I don't think that it should end there, but it's a start."

In October, CBC News revealed that Nowicki, a 66-year-old ALS patient, had her assisted-dying assessment on an Edmonton sidewalk after Covenant Health abruptly rescinded permission for her to have it by her palliative bed.

Following that story, the Catholic health provider announced it would review its policy on medical assistance in dying (MAID). As it completed that work, CBC News revealed the stories of three more patients who suffered under Covenant's policy.

Under its old policy, the default position was that assisted-dying patients could not undergo assessments by Alberta Health Services (AHS), or even sign the form requesting an assisted death, in Covenant's publicly funded facilities.

Its revised policy, released Monday, eliminates Covenant's previous position that categorically barred on-site form signings and assessments.

Under the old policy, Covenant could — and sometimes did — make exceptions if a patient was medically fragile. However, it always reserved the right to force patients off the property to access MAID services.

Covenant's new position states "it is understood that such activities may occur on Covenant Health sites but will not be arranged by Covenant staff." It reiterates the MAID process is led by AHS staff, not Covenant employees.

Critics told CBC News they're worried the use of the word "may" has left the policy ambiguous.

But Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said her understanding of the policy is clear.

"There are times where patients may choose to go somewhere else, like to their home, for an assessment," Hoffman said. "But if they do choose to have it done in a Covenant Health facility — that could be their home — that that is absolutely permissible now in the new policy, as well as filling out paperwork."

Covenant also confirmed the new policy means all MAID patients who wish to can sign their forms and undergo assessments on Covenant property.

Emmanuel said her family wants Covenant to go further, and allow non-objecting AHS staff to perform assisted deaths in Covenant facilities.

"For sure it was a long shot to expect that they would actually allow MAID to happen at their sites," she said. "That, of course, would be our ultimate goal in all of this."

Hoffman said she welcomes public feedback on the issue as the province's assisted-dying rules evolve.

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