The quiet bustle outside of Eisenhower Medical Center’s medical campus in Rancho Mirage was disturbed by the old-school call and response of an organizer’s bullhorn and a crowd of protesters on the morning of Thursday, March 2.
“What do we want?” shouted Joe Barnes, the California outreach manager for Compassion and Choices, a national advocacy group for terminally ill patients.
The crowd of 100 or so enthusiastic supporters of the California End of Life Option Act responded: “Access!”
Barnes continued: “When do we want it?”
“Now!” hollered the crowd.
The protest on the sidewalks alongside the Bob Hope Drive entrance to EMC was organized by, and for, Coachella Valley residents frustrated by the refusal of EMC administrators to allow any of their doctors, other professional staff members and facilities to participate in the new state law, which lays out the strict guidelines under which patients can obtain life-ending prescriptions, should they so choose. (Full disclosure: My mother-in-law utilized the law last year.)
Signs were waved; short and impassioned speeches were given; chants were raised; and then the group headed into the hospital building to meet with an EMC representative.
“We encourage members of our communities to speak with their doctors about what their priorities are at the end of their life, and really become a team with their doctors rather than accepting everything that the medical community just pushes out to them,” said Joan Stucker, the chairperson of the Coachella Valley Access Team for Compassion and Choices, to the Independent during the rally. “We have a hold-up (in patient access to End of Life Option services) with Eisenhower Hospital, because their doctors are employed by the hospital, and even though some of their physicians want to give their patients access, they (EMC leaders) refuse to let them do that. We want them to change that position.”
The other major-health care provider in our valley, Tenet Healthcare, operates the Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, the JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio, and the Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree. These facilities will not be a target of pro-End of Life Option demonstrations, because Tenet administrators recently clarified publicly that they will allow their personnel, including doctors in their networks, to support a patient’s End of Life Act rights.
The newly released official policy statement stipulates that any Tenet personnel who choose to engage in the End of Life Option procedures must record patient interactions in the Tenet health records systems. While Tenet physicians may write prescriptions for the life-ending drugs described in the California law, patients may not fill those prescriptions in Tenet pharmacies, or take those drugs in any of Tenet facilities.
Tenet is clearly doing more to address the needs of the terminally ill patients than EMC, which refuses to cooperate with the California law on any level.
“It just doesn’t seem that they (EMC) are providing the good care that they claim to give,” Stucker said. “They’re supposed to give incredible care to their patients, and yet they’re refusing to let them have this option.”
Idyllwild resident and EMC patient Francoise Frigola turned out for the rally.
“I asked my doctor what her position was (regarding the End of Life Option Act), and she was furious,” Frigola explained while leaning forward in her wheelchair. “She was part of writing the law, and because she’s affiliated with Eisenhower down here, she cannot do anything.”
Barnes told the Independent that he spoke with an EMC representative before the rally and told her: “‘You know, if you did what you said you were going to do, then we wouldn’t have this rally here today.’ Last fall, Compassion and Choices spoke to EMC representatives, who told us that they would make public outreach efforts and hold a town hall-style meeting where patients could state their concerns. But they never did anything.”
We asked Stucker what steps would next be taken regarding the lack of End of Life Option access at EMC.
“We know that getting access to medical aid in dying takes time. We know there’s a certain amount of resistance,” Stucker said. “It’s very difficult, because physicians and hospitals have not really been trained in end-of-life care. They’re very uncomfortable doing something that they’ve actually been trained not to do. But Eisenhower Medical Center is such a major player in local health care, serving a lot of patients all over the valley. We think it’s only right that their patients have a chance to get access (to medical aid in dying assistance) with the physicians that they are seeing.”