Insurance Willing to Pay for Woman’s Suicide, Not Her Drugs

by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer

(June 6, 2008) Imagine finding out you have lung cancer, then receiving a letter from your insurance company saying they can’t pay for the drugs you need, but are willing to pay for physician-assisted suicide, should you choose this option.

This is precisely what happened to 64 year old Barbara Wagner of Springfield, Oregon. She found out in early May that she had lung cancer and her doctor prescribed Tarceva, a cancer drug that could increase her survival rate.

The low-income retiree told The Register-Guard that she was devastated when she received a letter from the Oregon Health Plan saying they wouldn’t cover the drug, but would pay for assisted suicide.

“To say to someone, we’ll pay for you to die, but not pay for you to live, it’s cruel,” she said. “I get angry. Who do they think they are?”

Dr. John Sattenspiel, who works for the company that administers Wagner’s health plan, said the language in the letter refers to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and was just an example of the kind of comfort and palliative care options Wagner could choose.

“I understand the way it was interpreted,” he said. “We had no intent to upset her but we do need to point out the options available to her under the Oregon Health Plan. . . . The reality is, at some level (doctor-assisted suicide) could be considered as a palliative or comfort care measure.”

Thankfully, Wagner’s doctor appealed to Genentech, the company that markets Tarceva in the United States. On Monday, Wagner received a call from Genentech telling her they would cover the drug for a year, at which time she could re-apply.

Alex Schadenbrg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, expressed concern that the Oregon State Health Plan views assisted suicide and palliative care as similar health care services.

“Good palliative care allows a person to live until they die, whereas assisted suicide only causes death,” he wrote on the Coalition’s blog. “Once assisted suicide is viewed as a medical treatment, then it is always an option, even when good treatment or care is available. Wagner is receiving treatment, but not due to the recognition by the State of Oregon that her life was worth living but rather because the pharmaceutical company has offered her the Gift of Treatment by providing the drug for Wagner at no cost.”

Wesley J. Smith, a prominent bioethicist, agrees. “We have been warning for years that this was a possibility in Oregon,” he told LifeSiteNews. “Medicaid is rationed, meaning that some treatments are not covered. But assisted suicide is always covered. And now, Barbara Wagner was faced with that very scenario.”

Smith also mentioned a similar circumstance that had occurred in the past: “This isn’t the first time this has happened either. A few years ago a patient who needed a double organ transplant was denied the treatment but would have been eligible for state-financed assisted suicide.”

Wagner’s experience is a lesson for everybody, Schadenberg said. “This case should be an example of what happens when assisted suicide become legal.”

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