Mass. assisted suicide bill faces uncertain path on Beacon Hill

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Should physician-assisted suicide be legal in Massachusetts?

Some say the measure helps people seeking to avoid a painful death, others believe unintended consequences could easily arise when insurers are left to choose expensive, life-prolonging treatments or cheap, fatal drugs. What do you believe?

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BOSTON — A week after an impassioned four-hour hearing on a proposal to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in Massachusetts concluded on Beacon Hill, a significant question remains – what happens next?

State Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover), one of the 17 members of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said Tuesday there is no official timeline dictating when and how to proceed.

“It’s up to the committee chairs as to where it goes from here,” Lyons said, referring to state Sen. Jason M. Lewis (D-Winchester) and state Rep. Kate Hogan (D-Stow), who lead the public health panel. “They’re still going through other bills. It will probably just sit there for a while. There’s no time limit and no deadline.”

House Bill 1991, introduced by state Rep. Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton) and dubbed “an act affirming a terminally ill patient’s right to compassionate aid in dying,” is one of more than 100 legislative proposals currently sitting under the committee’s control.

State law dictates that once a public hearing is held, the committee must issue a report recommending whether a proposal like Kafka’s “ought to pass,” “ought not to pass,” be subject to further studies or sent to a different committee.

Bills reported “favorably” out of committee (or “ought to pass”) are then subject to a “first reading” in either the House or the Senate, depending upon where the proposal originated. The full process requires three separate “readings,” or formal reviews, of bills from the floor of the House or Senate. After a bill is read a second time it is subject to debate, motions and amendments. A bill that secures a favorable vote following debate is then ordered to a third reading, where it can be subjected to additional debate, motions and amendments.

Following that process, the full Senate and House then vote on whether to pass the bill as amended. If approved, the bill heads to the governor’s desk to be signed or rejected. A veto can only be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both legislative branches.

Courtney Rainey, Hogan’s chief of staff, said the committee has not yet convened to review last week’s testimony on Kafka’s bill.

There is a procedural provision, however, known as Joint Rule 10, which holds that “all matters referred to joint committees must be reported out within 10 days, excluding Sundays and holidays.”

Joint Rule 10 is not ironclad. Legislative panels can request more time “if the complexity of the matter requires additional committee analysis.” Extensions require approval from both the House and Senate.

According to Lyons, Kafka’s bill is not the only legislation that awaits action on Beacon Hill. Lyons hinted that some friction may exist between the House and the Senate.

“On a general basis, from the beginning of this year, there’s been few major pieces of legislation that have come forward and I don’t honestly know what the reason for the holdup is,” Lyons added.

One bill Lyons said lawmakers should make a priority is Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to limit the amount of painkillers dentists and doctors can prescribe to no more than a 72-hour supply of opioid drugs for first-time patients, barring exceptions for certain emergencies.

“He’s made a very solid proposal that ought to get in front of the legislature before the Thanksgiving break,” Lyons said. That vacation begins Nov. 18.

Contact Evan Lips at Evan@NewBostonPost.com or on Twitter at @evanmlips.

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