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BY Jim Cosgrove
WASHINGTON—Congress is expected to debate whether or not to block Oregon's assisted-suicide law again this year, but the discussions have opened with emphasis on related issues — pain management and end-of-life care.
The aim, said pro-assisted suicide Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is to change the terms of this year's assisted-suicide debate. “I want us to be in a position to define what this debate is about in this session of Congress,” Wyden said. “Last session, we were essentially playing defense.”
Wyden said he expects by early March to introduce legislation he calls the Conquering Pain Act of 1999. Pro-assisted suicide Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-OR) will introduce companion legislation in the House.
In addition, Hooley expects to introduce legislation next week with pro-assisted suicide Reps. Sander Levin (DMI) and Jim Greenwood (R-PA) supposedly designed to improve aspects of end-of-life care, such as patients' ability to specify what medical care they wish to receive.
Still unclear, however, is what, if any, effect the pain management and end-of-life care legislation will have on a renewal of attempts to block Oregon's Death With Dignity Act that legalized assisted suicide.
The Judiciary committees of both the House and Senate approved pro-life legislation last year that would have blocked the Oregon law, but the proposals stalled, failing to reach the floor of either chamber for a vote.
Wyden has been circulating drafts of his pain management legislation to members of Congress and health care groups for comments. Most notably, Wyden has been working with pro-life Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the assistant majority leader. Last year, Nickles led the Senate effort to block the Oregon law, and Wyden vowed to stop him.
Wyden said he and Nickles have had several conversations about the pain management bill since late last year. Nickles has made no commitments, but Wyden said he hopes the bill “will be appealing to him.” Wyden would not comment on whether Nickles would renew his attempts to block the Oregon law.
Nickles' office also would not discuss his plans, but a spokesman, Brook Simmons, said, “Sen. Nickles believes good pain care and good palliative care policies will go a long way toward addressing the issue of assisted suicide.”
Wyden declined to release a copy of the pain management draft but said it would have the federal government develop and operate a pain management program, making information on pain care widely available. The proposal also would create six pain management centers at academic institutions across the country, pay for demonstration projects and increase reimbursement for pain care in assisted-living facilities and in-home hospice patients.