PROVIDENCE, R.I. — While a handful of states have passed or are considering right-to-die laws, a Rhode Island lawmaker wants the state to give terminally ill patients the "right to try."
Democratic Rep. Joseph McNamara says his bill is the opposite of laws that allow terminally ill patients to legally take their live. It would let them obtain experimental drugs that have not been federally approved.
"Right-to-try" bills have been filed in 17 states so far this legislative session, including Rhode Island, said Kurt Altman, national policy adviser for the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank in Arizona. Five states — Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Missouri and Michigan — enacted similar measures in the past year.
In five other states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana — terminally ill patients can legally take their lives. California lawmakers are pursuing right-to-die legislation after a young woman with brain cancer moved to Oregon to legally end her life in November, and new laws are being considered in other states.
"The concept behind the laws is very similar: People have the right to make their own choices," Altman said. "Why shouldn't you have the right to save your life if you have the right to end it?"
Supporters of right-to-try legislation say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval process takes too long.
The FDA has not weighed in on any of the proposals. Spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said the agency has an "expanded access" program to allow seriously ill patients to use investigational drugs outside of a clinical trial when no other treatments are available.
"While the FDA is supportive of patient access to experimental new treatments when appropriate, we believe that the drug approval process represents the best way to assure the development of, and access to, safe and effective new medicines for all patients," Yao said in a statement.
Patients have not yet obtained experimental drugs using the new laws, Altman said. Physicians are working with drug companies and patients to ensure everything is done right and the patients' consent is informed, he said.
The Rhode Island legislation states that insurance companies may cover the costs of experimental treatments but are not required to, and that drug companies may make the treatment available but are also not required to. A patient would have to get a physician's recommendation, after considering all approved treatment options, and medical licensing boards would be prohibited from taking action against a health care provider for making such a recommendation.
Vincent Greene, president of a trial lawyers' association, said he's troubled by the immunity clause for health care providers.
"There's a reason we don't immunize doctors," said Greene, of the Rhode Island Association For Justice. "We want to make sure they uphold an appropriate standard of care."
Steven DeToy, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Medical Society, said the bill's intent is worthy, but it's his understanding that no state can pre-empt the FDA approval process.
Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Hospital and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello are waiting until the legislation progresses to take a position. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network has yet to take a stance on any state-specific legislation.
McNamara said a hearing will be held soon on his bill, which he introduced last week and was referred to the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare, of which he is the chairman. He said he wrote the legislation because a close friend who had cancer told him his greatest battle was with "overwhelming despair."
"This is about giving individuals who are fighting these battles hope," McNamara said. "If anyone should be giving them hope, it's us."
The official state motto of Rhode Island is simply "Hope."