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In Colorado, A Low-Price Drug Cocktail Will Tamp Down Cost Of Death With Dignity

The cocktail, which puts patients to sleep and then halts their heartbeat and breathing, has been used 38 times so far. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

As Colorado’s aid-in-dying law takes effect this month, proponents say they’ll make sure terminally-ill patients have access to a new, affordable drug concoction that will avoid the $3,000 cost of a common lethal sedative that has skyrocketed in price.

Officials with Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group, are reaching out to pharmacies statewide to confirm that they’ll stock components of a lethal four-drug cocktail to substitute for secobarbital, known as Seconal, the pricey sleeping pill most often prescribed to induce death.

It’s the second time in a year that right-to-die advocates have come up with a substitute for Seconal after Canadian drugmaker Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. acquired the medication in February 2015 — and abruptly doubled the $1,500 retail price.

“We were looking for something more affordable and available,” said Kat West, an attorney and policy expert with Compassion & Choices.

The new law, which was passed by a two-thirds majority, was signed into law on Dec. 16 by Gov. John Hickenlooper. Colorado joins five other states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California — in which terminally ill patients, usually those expected to live six months or less, can choose to take doctor-prescribed drugs to end their lives. In Oregon, at least 991 patients have died after taking drugs prescribed since the law took effect in 1997. In Washington state, at least 917 have died under terms of the law enacted in 2009.

Access to the medications can depend, in part, on cost. Many health insurance plans pay for aid-in-dying drugs, advocates said, but some don’t, and the medications aren’t covered by federal programs such as Medicare or Catholic-run health care systems. Medicaid programs for the poor and disabled in Oregon and California will pay, but not those in Washington state, Vermont or Montana. In Colorado, it’s still unclear.

That can create a barrier for terminally ill patients who want to use the law, said Beth Glennon, a client-support coordinator for End of Life Washington, an advocacy group.

“The cost does affect people’s decisions,” Glennon said.

As of March, the latest data available, a bottle of 100 capsules of 100-milligram Seconal had a retail price of $3,082, according to data from Truven Health Analytics. Ten grams is a lethal dose.

When Oregon’s law began, the cost was about $150, recalled Dr. David Grube, national medical director for Compassion & Choices and a family doctor who has practiced in the state for nearly 40 years. He calls the price hikes “an almost-evil practice of greed.”

“I think it’s the black side of capitalism,” he said. “It really breaks my heart.”

Valeant officials didn’t respond to requests for comment, but in March firm officials issued a statement saying that secobarbital is approved only for treating short-term insomnia, epilepsy and for use in pre-operative anesthesia.

“If it is being prescribed for off-label uses, it is not something for which the product is manufactured or intended,” the statement said.

To fight the high prices, doctors in Washington state experimented last year with a cheaper mixture that included three drugs — phenobarbital, chloral hydrate and morphine sulfate. The components are widely available and cost about $500 for a lethal dose. But the combination turned out to be too harsh, said Dr. Robert Wood, a volunteer medical adviser for End of Life Washington.

“The chloral hydrate mixture was too caustic for some folks and our volunteers didn’t like using it,” because some patients became distressed, Wood said.

Most doses of lethal medication are bitter, often requiring patients to take anti-nausea drugs. But the new mixture was not only bitter but also caused a burning sensation in the mouths of some patients, said Glennon. “There was some profound burning,” she said. “We didn’t like working with it. As a volunteer, you want to reassure people. We’re about a peaceful, dignified death.”

Wood and his colleagues came up with a new option this summer, a four-drug mixture that includes diazepam, digoxin, morphine and propranolol, known as DDMP. It costs between $300 and $600.

The mixture, which puts patients to sleep and then halts their heartbeat and breathing, has been used 38 times so far, Wood said.

“It is no more difficult than Seconal to ingest and it seems to work quite well,” he added.

The mixture has been used “a fair amount” in California, where an aid-in-dying law took effect in June, said Grube. It’s not yet known how many terminally-ill patients have died under that state’s law, but dozens have requested prescriptions, officials said.

Valeant was widely criticized for raising the price of secobarbital, a popular sedative in the 1960s and 1970s that lost its patent status in the early 1990s. It has been used for aid-in-dying patients since Oregon passed the first U.S. law in 1997, which was modeled on similar action in the Netherlands, where secobarbital was the drug of choice.

Another sedative, pentobarbital, was also frequently used, but supplies in the U.S. became expensive and scarce after European drugmakers objected to its use as an execution drug in death penalty cases.

Doctors and pharmacists are not obligated to participate in aid-in-dying treatment under existing laws, including the Colorado action. In a recent poll, about 40 percent of more than 600 doctors surveyed said they would be willing to prescribe lethal medication, 42 percent said they wouldn’t and 18 percent weren’t sure, noted Dr. Cory Carroll, a solo practice family physician in Fort Collins, Colo., who endorsed the measure.

“The docs that are in opposition have a right to their beliefs, but they don’t have the right to control others,” Carroll said in a recent press conference.

West of Compassion & Choices anticipates that Colorado’s law will be used immediately, as similar laws in other states have been.

“We’re already getting calls from terminally ill people in Colorado who want to access this law,” she said. “I fully expect people to begin requesting prescriptions.”

KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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