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California Public Health department reports 374 doctor-assisted deaths in 2017

Hundreds of terminally-ill patients in California have either requested or gone through a doctor-assisted death. The practice became legal in the state in 2016. (Joruba/Getty Images)

California health officials reported that 374 terminally ill people took doctor-prescribed drugs to deliberately end their lives in 2017, the first full year the practice became legal in the state, according to the Associated Press.

A total of 577 received “aid-in-dying drugs” last year, but not everyone took them, the California Department of Public Health reported Friday. Adults can obtain a prescription for the life-ending drugs if a doctor diagnoses that they have 6 months or less to live, the report states.

What were the demographics of the patients?

Among the 374 who took the drugs, “about 90 percent were more than 60 years old, about 95 percent were insured and about 83 percent were receiving hospice or similar care,” the report states. The median age of the patients was 74.

California state health officials also reported that 632 people last year, most of them cancer patients, began asking their physicians for the lethal prescription. Under the law, patients are required to make two verbal requests at least 15 days apart.

Figures more than doubled from the first 6 months after the law became effective on June 9, 2016. Months after the practice became legal, 191 received the life-ending drugs, and 111 people took them and died, according to the report.

In May, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled that the law is unconstitutional because it was adopted illegally. He said lawmakers passed it during a special legislative session called to address health issues. Last week, an appeals court reinstated the End of Life Option Act and told opponents they have until July 2 to file objections, according to the report.

California passed its law after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard moved to Oregon in 2014 because she wanted to end her life rather than battle brain cancer. Under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, patients can request a prescription from their doctor and then self-administer the lethal medication. Oregon enacted the law in 1997.

Is this legal in other states?

Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Washington state, and Washington, D.C. have also legalized doctor-assisted deaths.

Critics believe the practice can prompt hasty decisions or a misdiagnosis. It also discounts treatment that allows the terminally ill to be sedated to relieve suffering.

Supporters believe it allows people to pre-empt what would likely lead to a lingering, painful death.

“The worst case scenarios predicted by opponents to the Act have not come to fruition,” Democratic state Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel, who carried the original legislation, said in a statement. “To me, this indicates that physicians are talking to their patients and that their patients are being thoughtful in considering the use of the Act.”

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