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Oregonians to help pay for doctor-aided suicides

An Oregon health panel voted to require taxpayers to help pay for doctor-assisted suicides of terminally ill poor people.

The state Health Services Commission voted 10-1 Thursday for a proposal that said delivering lethal doses of prescription drugs should be covered as a "medical service" for the 270,000 low-income residents covered under the state's health plan.Although the state hasn't set a dollar amount for the new policy, a health official said he doubted that many low-income people would avail themselves of the suicide law, was passed in 1994 and affirmed last year. Even if they did, it wouldn't be that expensive, he said.

"These are cheap prescriptions, and health-care provider time will not be significant," said Hersh Crawford, head of the Oregon Office of Medical Assistance Programs.

Oregon is the only state where doctor-assisted suicide is legal.

The new policy is scheduled to take effect in about two months, but it still must withstand federal scrutiny because Medicaid receives federal matching funds. Congress passed a law in April that forbids federal money from being used to cover doctor-assisted suicide.

But that doesn't necessarily preclude coverage under the Oregon Health Plan. Abortions can't be funded with federal dollars, but Oregon covers the service by using only state money.

Advocates of public funding of suicides said it was a matter of fairness and that anyone who qualifies should at least have the option to obtain life-ending drugs - regardless of their income level.

"The most discriminatory thing would be not to give this choice to the poor," commission member Ellen Lowe said.

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs at the request of terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live.

The law's most outspoken opponent was the Oregon Catholic Conference, which contended making taxpayers pay for assisted suicide forces many people to abandon the values of their faith.

"There would be no more tragic discrimination against the poor than to allow them to be killed," conference spokesman Bob Cas-ta-gna said. "That is the ultimate discrimination."