California veterans must leave their homes for help in dying

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They served the nation on distant and often hostile coasts and put the body and mind in danger for their country.

Now at the dawn of their lives, residents of Napa County’s Yountville Veterans Home are asking about the option to end their lives when they are terminally ill, in peace, at home, in their own bed.

The 625 residents and their spouses are denied access to the state euthanasia law. A group of residents at the home went to court to try to change this.

Life-ending drugs are also banned from the other 2,000 aging and disabled veterans and spouses in state facilities in Fresno, Barstow, Redding, and other cities. That’s because California End of Life Options Act conflicts with federal law – so the state veterans’ agency bans this for fear of losing millions of dollars in federal funds.

Without the same rights that other Californians are granted by law, the only option the veterans have is to leave – or to stay and risk misery. If the veteran leaves, his spouse must go too and cannot return.

“I saw three of my friends die here who were in pain and suffering. It’s unacceptable, ”said Jim Thomas, 86, a distinguished Vietnam War-era US Air Force officer and pilot who lives with his wife Jensena, 80 at the Yountville Veterans Home in Napa County, the oldest and largest residential community for Veterinarians in the country.

“The last thing anyone needs when they are terminally ill is to be told to move out. And you can’t protect your spouse, ”said Thomas, one of the residents who tried to end the policy. As long as he is still in good health, he would like to have access to this option in the future. “You’re already suffering.”

They don’t want to ask friends, children, or grandchildren to take them in during such a sad and deeply personal experience that also involves many procedural steps, Jensena added. And leaving means that the surviving spouse will lose not only a partner but their home as well.

Yountville House, a red-tiled Mission Revival complex that hugs the oak-fringed Mayacamas Mountains, offers affordable retirement for aging, disabled, or homeless veterans of World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, War in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The house was founded in 1884 and has been waiting for entry for a year; The average age of the residents is 80 years.

The home provides a safe retirement for Jim Thomas who flew to Japan, Southeast Asia and remote Pacific islands as the captain of the Air Force missions. Awarded two Medals of Commendation for Meritorious Achievement, he repeatedly navigated large Douglas C-124 propeller transport aircraft, called “Old Shakey”, through dangerous fog. Once, after his plane’s engine exploded over the ocean and he lost his navigational skills, he safely landed the plane 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 his life is quieter and more comfortable in a room decorated with matching blue bedspreads, plush bears, Bibles, and family photos. On the wall is a pair of faded pink pointe shoes, a memento of Jensena’s career as a professional ballerina.

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

Co-plaintiff James Musson, a former special agent of the US Army Intelligence Corps in Frankfurt, also appreciates his room. On display are his military dog ​​tags from the time of the Vietnam War, a diploma from the secret service school and his discharge papers.

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

Musson also fears that if veterans leave home to die, they will lose the right to be buried in the historic 11-acre cemetery, a resting place for fighters from the Seminole Wars. The cemetery only accepts the burial of the residents of the veterans home and their authorized relatives.

“It matters to me because it applies not only to myself but to other home members as well,” said Musson.

The euthanasia ban was issued a few weeks after the state euthanasia law was passed. The law – inspired after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard had to move to Oregon from East Bay to end her life and prevent brain cancer – was created specifically to enable terminally ill California residents to receive medication to hasten their deaths , and die at home.

The California Department of Veterans Affairs, known as CalVet, issued an emergency ordinance that any terminally ill resident who intends to take the drug “will be released from the veterans home”. If a veteran changes his mind, it is said that he could be reinstated.

CalVet homes are not required to participate in the law, which has been used by 1,816 Californians since it went into effect in 2016, Simona Taylor, assistant attorney general for CalVet, said at a hearing in Napa County Superior Court earlier this month a specific “opt-out” provision, she noted.

“No facility, no doctor can be assigned this service,” said Taylor. “There is no right for everyone to get medical help in death in a certain place.”

The problem, according to CalVet officials, is that state law clashes with federal law. They say the agency could lose its funding if it breaks the 1997s Assisted Suicide Funding Limitation Actwhich prohibits the use of money “to pay for items and services (including assistance) the purpose of which is to induce (or assist) in suicide, euthanasia, or mercy of a person”.

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

The veterans would not employ CalVet doctors, staff or resources to source and use the life-ending drugs, said attorney Matthew Vafidis of the San Francisco firm Holland & Knight LLP, who represents the veterans. Instead, residents would hire external doctors.

The “opt-out” provision of the end-of-life law, he added, is intended for institutions with religious concerns like Catholic hospitals, not government institutions.

Like California, Colorado, and Vermont, veterans home residents are asking to leave the facilities if they want to end their lives, according to Kaiser Health News. Veterans can stay in Washington if the facility allows, according to Judy Kinney of End of Life Washington.

Vafidis said CalVet could fulfill veterinarians’ wishes while still complying with federal regulations by keeping all end-of-life funds in a separate operating and financial system. But in an August court briefing, prosecutors said it was impractical to open and maintain an account that was solely paid out of non-state funds and devoted solely to euthanasia.

So far, the court has been on the side of the state. In a preliminary ruling dated October 13, “this is an emotionally and morally charged issue, but I need to put that aside and focus on the law,” said Judge Monique Langhorne of the Napa County Superior Court.

The veterans say they will now decide their next move in whatever time they have left. One of the original plaintiffs died after a slow decline from congestive heart failure.

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


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