Australia

More than 50 people died under Victoria's euthanasia scheme during its first six months

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos speaks to media in Melbourne, Monday, August 5, 2019. Source: AAP

Dozens of people have died under Victoria's assisted dying scheme in its first six months, with a review board finding no evidence that any of them were coerced.

More than 50 people have died in the first six months of Victoria's euthanasia scheme and there is no evidence any of them were coerced.

But the state government is appealing to the Commonwealth to scrap a law barring doctors from discussing voluntary dying over the phone, fearing it may put terminally ill people in regional Victoria at a disadvantage.

The state's Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board has confirmed 52 deaths under the scheme between June and December last year in a report released on Wednesday.

Nine of those died using medication administered by a practitioner, while 43 administered medication themselves. Medication has been dispensed for 66 people.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos says high demand for people to access the scheme comes despite its strict eligibility criteria.

"We always knew that it was going to be very strict eligibility - that was what the parliament intended - but nevertheless, there is strong demand from the community," she told reporters on Wednesday.

Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board chair and former Supreme Court justice Betty King said some family members of those who chose to die have not agreed with their decision, but supported them nonetheless.

Despite the trauma of watching their loved one die, they largely had positive reflections on the experience.

"The feedback has been predominantly about how peaceful it was, how it was fabulous for my parent or my loved one to be able to choose, to be surrounded by family, to play music and to just quietly go to sleep," Ms King told reporters.

Ms King said she had seen no evidence of children or others pressuring their loved one to access the scheme, an issue that concerned some parliamentarians when the legislation was debated in 2017.

"I have not seen - and I have been looking, believe me, I have seen no indication of any type of coercion," Ms King said.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (right) embraces then-health minister Jill Hennessy after the assisted dying bill passed into law in October 2017
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (right) embraces then-health minister Jill Hennessy after the assisted dying bill passed into law in October 2017
AAP

But the board's report states they are worried about the impact of a 2005 federal law which makes it a crime, punishable by a fine, for people to incite or counsel someone into suicide using a carriage service.

The law prevents doctors from consulting with people seeking voluntary dying through standard telehealth channels, the board's report says.

Terminally ill adults need two medical professionals to sign off on their application, and the Victorian government may help pay for doctors or applicants to travel for face-to-face meetings.

But Ms Mikakos says the federal government needs to consider the unintended consequences their legislation could potentially have, particularly now that WA has passed its own assisted dying laws.

"It is time now for them to reconsider their legislation, and we certainly hope that they'll take this issue very seriously," she said.

She intends to raise the issue again with her federal counterpart Greg Hunt.

A total of 136 people began assessment for the scheme, but not all were able to proceed. There were 19 permit applications withdrawn, in some cases because people had died by other means or due to an administrative error.

A total of 70 people were approved for a permit to die by self-administering medication, while 11 were approved to have the medication administered by a practitioner.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800.

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement can be contacted on 1800 642 066.

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