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Doctors may need legal shield to help patients end their lives

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If doctors intend to facilitate Voluntary Assisted Dying over the phone or online, they run the risk of being prosecuted under Commonwealth laws.

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The Palaszczuk government is pushing ahead with plans for its long-promised VAD scheme, releasing draft laws and a report prepared by the Queensland Law Reform Commission.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles is leading the government consultation with stakeholder groups today, ahead of a bill being introduced into parliament next week. If passed, the laws would allow people to access VAD from January 2023.

However, higher-level negotiations will be needed if the scheme is to work as intended. The commission has warned of rural and remote patients missing out unless the Morrison Government clarifies how Commonwealth telecommunication laws interact with VAD.

Under the Commonwealth laws, it is an offence to use a ‘carriage service’ to counsel, promote or provide instruction on suicide – punishable by a $220,000 fine. That would seemingly include doctors using a phone or going online to talk about euthanasia with patients, even if allowed in the state system.

While some legal experts argue VAD is not strictly suicide, and the Commonwealth would be unlikely to prosecute in any event, the commission is concerned that Queensland doctors would be under a “grey cloud”.

In Victoria, where there is a similar scheme, doctors have been advised to see patients face-to-face so as to avoid potentially breaching the Commonwealth laws. That may not be possible in a decentralised state like Queensland, where there are already plans for a central nurse referral service to connect patients with VAD doctors and facilities.

“Uncertainty surrounding the application of the Commonwealth law to health practitioners who are authorised by state law to engage in the voluntary assisted dying process is concerning,” the commission wrote in its report.

“The uncertainty should be resolved. It is inherently undesirable that health practitioners should be left under such an apparently unintended grey cloud. If the Commonwealth law is not clarified, some health practitioners may be deterred from participating in the process, particularly in rural, remote and regional areas where telehealth and other forms of electronic communication via a ‘carriage service’ is a necessity.

“Without access to health practitioners who are qualified to undertake the eligibility assessments and engage in other aspects of the process, including conversations with a patient about the final request for administration, people in remote areas will be disadvantaged and have unequal access to the process.”

A spokeswoman for Miles said Queensland would join other states in seeking to resolve the issue.

“The Palaszczuk government hopes this issue will be resolved so we can ensure all Queenslanders in regional and rural parts of the state can confidently access the scheme,” she said.

“We will be raising this issue with the Federal government, as other states with voluntary assisted dying laws have done.”

Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman is expected to also raise the issue with her federal counterpart, Michaelia Cash.

Fentiman had previously made it clear that the VAD scheme would need to “be suited to Queensland’s unique conditions, including its geography, population diversity, access to health practitioners and public and private hospital systems, as well as the fact that many Queenslanders live in remote parts of our great state”.

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