SALEM, Ore. — The agency responsible for investigating and reporting on the practice of assisted suicide here is not doing its job, said Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a Portland-based physician.

Hamilton, who started Physicians for Compassionate Care in 1994 to mobilize opposition to Oregon's assisted-suicide law, said the report recently issued by the state Health Division fails because it only interviews the doctor and family members of each suicide “patient.”

“They asked the wrong questions to the wrong people,” Hamilton told the Register.

Independent doctors are needed, Hamilton insisted, to talk to patients before assisted suicide is chosen, to make sure patients really want to end their lives.

According to the Health Division, 29 patients ended their life through assisted suicide in 1999, up from 16 in 1998. Oregon voters legalized assisted suicide in 1994.

“The Oregon Health Division says there's no problem,” said Hamilton. “But in Oregon, we know there are problems.”

He cited the case of Kate Cheney as an example of why further investigation is needed. Cheney was diagnosed with dementia, which would leave her ineligible for assisted suicide under Oregon law.

“Her daughter put her under pressure,” said Hamilton. After some “doctor shopping,” a doctor willing to end Cheney's life was found, Hamilton suggested.

The case received widespread news coverage in Oregon and raised concerns that assisted suicide was becoming euthanasia.

“Let's get an objective, third-party investigator to talk to them before they kill them, not after they kill them,” said Hamilton.

Lack of Funding?

Katrina Hedburg, one of the authors of the Oregon Health Division's report, said that her agency does not have the authority or the funds to investigate cases like Cheney's in the manner that Hamilton suggested.

“The law requires that the Oregon Health Division keep track of who participates,” Hedburg told the Register. “They fill out the forms and we match them with death certificates.”

Hedburg acknowledged that many people thought that Oregon was expected to investigate the cases, but she insisted that that is not the agency's responsibility.

“We're not a regulatory agency,” said Hedburg. “Our mandate is to get the records at the time a prescription is written.”

Hedburg also said the Cheney case was not conclusive. “People get second opinions all the time,” she noted.

But when asked whether such a case would warrant an independent investigation, Hedburg said the agency didn't have that authority.

“We don't have the power to look into these matters on an individual basis,” she contended. “We have no staff to pay for this. We have no investigators for this. We have no money.”

Excuses, Excuses

Oregon state Sen. Eileen Qutub disagreed strongly with Hedburg's comments.

“Traditionally, when an agency does not deliver, their excuse is always that they don't have enough money,” Qutub told the Register.

Qutub said that Gov. John A. Kitzhaber insisted that the Legislature leave the Oregon Health Division responsible for the regulations for assisted suicide.

The governor didn't want the Legislature micromanaging the rules, she explained. “The Health Division was responsible for creating the rules to gather the information on assisted suicide.”

Qutub said that it appears that the Oregon Health Division is preventing responsible reform. “They're very closed about it,” she maintained. “They don't seem to be responsive to physicians who want to see the … records.”

Qutub insisted that the state Health Division is trying to make the Legislature a scapegoat. “The Legislature did everything they could,” she said. “The Health Division blaming the Legislature is simply irresponsible. They just need to do their job.”

Offer to Help Extended

If money really is the problem, Hamilton said he would find the necessary money to finance an independent investigation.

The department “could collaborate with other groups to pay for a study,” said Hamilton. “I could get a grant to do this. We could get objective, third party, out-of-state investigators. It's not an expensive study.”

Hamilton presented his offer in a letter to Hedburg last year.

Hedburg refused Hamilton's offer, saying her agency didn't have the authority to investigate the cases and that she had “grave concerns” about collaborating with outside organizations that may be associated with the “highly polarized” issue of assisted suicide. In a letter, she also mentioned a concern over maintaining patient confidentiality. She didn't mention a lack of funding.

Hamilton said that if the Oregon Health Division does not want to work with Physicians for Compassionate Care, it could opt for any independent organization. He also maintained that patient confidentiality could easily be protected using standard medical record procedures.

Hamilton said the report and the response from the agency were disappointing. “The Oregon Health Division basically discredited itself this year again.”