Carol Onley, 66, is dying. 

She’s leaving behind unfinished paintings in her “she-shed”, a loving extended family, and a supportive partner. 

“More than 10 years ago now, I had my first diagnosis of lung cancer which was amazingly shocking,” she said. 

After a successful surgery and course of immunotherapy, Carol got back to living. 

“But in 2019 I had some symptoms which seemed quite unusual, so I went and had a CT scan, and yes, those little nodules had now absolutely exploded.” 

After a lifetime as a mental health nurse and a smoker, Carol knew what was ahead of her. 

“Through my nursing career I was quite aware of voluntary assisted dying (VAD), that it had become available to people in my position,” she said.

“[At the] beginning of this year, I’ve embarked on that program.”

Despite breathlessness and fatigue, Carol is enjoying her life as she started it: on the farm. (

ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis

)

Under Victoria’s VAD program, two doctors need to independently verify the patient is of sound mind and has less than six months to live for a physical illness and 12 months for a neurological condition.

But living in regional Victoria has made the process more difficult. 

“I was actually shocked to find in Gippsland there were only two doctors available who could make that assessment,” Carol said. 

Get Australia's #1 news appDownload the ABC News app for all the latest.

There are just 76 doctors in regional Victoria trained to help terminally ill people access the VAD program. 

“I have family, I have good supports who’ve helped me all through this and they can take me to wherever I’ve needed to go,” Carol said. 

“I’ve just wondered about people who live further afield from Orbost or Bairnsdale, if you don’t have quite so much good access to supports, how do they access the program?

“There just seem to be some barriers that are a little too difficult for people to overcome.”

Victoria’s progress

Victoria’s VAD program, which came into force in 2019, was the first state-based program in Australia. 

In a statement, a Victorian government spokesperson said the legislation was leading Australia. 

“Our voluntary assisted dying laws are giving Victorians with an incurable illness at the end of their lives a compassionate choice,” they said. 

“This service has been expanded through regional Victoria and we continue to encourage more medical practitioners to become involved to allow greater access across the state.”

But the board charged with reviewing the program found there were “limited numbers” of GPs trained to consult on euthanasia in far east and west Victoria. 

A map showing the locations of medical practitioners who can help people access the VAD program
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Program Review Board says there are “limited numbers” of practitioners in the east and west of the state who can help terminally people access the program. (

Supplied: Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board

)

Process ‘takes time’

A former Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Betty King, is the chair of that board.

Former Victorian Supreme Court Justice Betty King in front of a book case.
Former Victorian Supreme Court Justice Betty King says Victoria’s legislation is “very conservative”. (

Supplied: Betty King

)

“[We’ve recommended the government] encourage more specialists to do the training and sign up for the program, it’s a busy practice and there is so much for most specialists in regional Victoria to do, without this additional time,” Justice King said. 

“It’s certainly been one that’s designed to be safe, and when you have a lot of safeguards built in it does take time, so it’s very difficult for them to take that time out of their practice.”

Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying board is set to table its final report on the program in Parliament in August. 

Telehealth ban amplifies inequity

But as other states bring in VAD programs of their own, there is another problem facing regional Australians trying to access euthanasia. 

“So much now in medicine, particularly regionally, depends upon telehealth; unfortunately telehealth is not permitted for VAD, because federally some legislation was introduced to prevent [euthanasia advocate] Dr [Philip] Nitschke from sharing methods of suicide online,” Justice King said. 

Breaking these laws could incur fines of up to  $222,000 for individuals or $1,110,000 for businesses. 

“It potentially prevents our doctors in Victoria from being able to use telehealth to discuss things and talk to patients and that really is a major inhibitor,” Justice King said. 

“We have called on the Commonwealth to just exempt voluntary assisted dying from it, because we are a government, organised, legal process, but so far they have not been willing to do so.”

In a statement, the federal government said people should have access to quality palliative care. 

“The government has no plans to amend the suicide-related material offences in the Criminal Code.”

Voluntary euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke hold a cigarette lighter flame to his medical certificate.
Voluntary euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke sets alight his medical certificate at a Darwin press conference.(

ABC News: Jacqueline Breen

)

Dr Nitschke, once investigated for testing the purity of a drug used in a terminally ill man’s suicide, said the introduction of the amendment in 2005 was targeted. 

“It’s often a piece of legislation that I think people aren’t aware of, and it was an insidious introduction that came in under the Howard government with Philip Ruddock as Attorney General, that I think the public were never really aware they were having a pretty basic and fundamental freedom eroded,” he said.

As more states begin their VAD programs, Dr Nitschke said the federal government needed to change the code to ease the burden on regional Australians.  

“It’s certainly something that needs addressing if we’re to see uniform legislation and equal access to what’s available in these new end of life pieces of legislation sweeping across Australia,” he said.

Find more local news

‘More resources needed’ due to telehealth ban 



Source link

By EDONS