Patients to be moved out of Covenant Health facilities for assisted deaths

Patients at hospitals and continuing care facilities run by Covenant Health will be transferred to other Alberta health-care facilities if they are seeking physician-assisted death.

Publicly funded, Catholic health care organization, opposes physician-assisted dying

Associate health minister Brandy Payne said MLAs will debate her motion on physician-assisted dying on Tuesday. (CBC )

Patients at hospitals and continuing-care facilities run by Covenant Health will be transferred to other Alberta health-care facilities if they seek a physician-assisted death, the province says.

Covenant Health is a Catholic organization that runs publicly funded hospitals in Edmonton and continuing-care facilities across the province. In February, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said Covenant Health would not allow patients to end their lives with the help of a doctor in its facilities. 

Associate health minister Brandy Payne confirmed Monday that physicians and other health-care workers will not be forced to take part in this procedure if it goes against their beliefs. She said procedures are being set up to move patients, if necessary. 

"We're working to set out a framework of protocols and processes to ensure that if a patient in a facility where medical assistance in dying is not available, that there will be a process in place for transfer of care likely through Alberta Health Services," she said.

Payne made the statement while announcing the Alberta legislature will debate a motion on physician-assisted suicide on Tuesday.

The government's decision to exempt Covenant Health came under sharp criticism by advocacy group Dying with Dignity Canada.

"Though physicians, as individuals, have a right to conscientious refusal, taxpayer-funded institutions have no such right," the groups's CEO Shanaaz Gokool said in a news release. "Instead, they have a duty to provide a full range of compassionate healthcare options for patients at end of life."​

Debate in the legislature

The Supreme Court of Canada ordered the federal government to have a law in place by June 6. Even if Bill C-14  is passed this week, it faces a battle in the Senate, making it unlikely it will become law by the court's deadline. 

Nonetheless, Payne said she wants to have a framework based on the Supreme Court decision ready next week. But she wants MLAs to have a chance to debate the issue first.

"It's a deeply personal issue that touches many of our lives in different ways," Payne said. "So we thought it was really important before introducing regulations to have that chance to hear from our colleagues on both sides of the aisle."

Opposition parties expressed support for a debate but said they were concerned it was taking place so late in the session, which is scheduled to end Thursday.

"This is not news to the government," said PC MLA Richard Starke. "We've known that the June 6 date has been coming for some time."

Starke said he has heard concerns and questions from his constituents about physician-assisted death.

He said he had to reassure a senior who was worried that the decision to die will be made without their consent if they were admitted to hospital.

Liberal Leader David Swann, a physician, said the motion will ask MLAs to support a principle and not clarify issues doctors are concerned about. He feels the legislation is being rushed.

"It starts with the federal government and it continues with the provincial government," he said. "We've all known that this has been the Supreme Court decision over 18 months ago, and we've been dragging our feet and this is not serving our people as well as we should."

Swann and NDP MLA Bob Turner, another physician, led a consultation on assisted dying regulations.