The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) has removed an option on its 8-1-1 health line that provides information about medical assistance in dying (MAID).
The SHA website says the number is a “24-hour confidential health, mental health and addictions counselling, education and support line for the people of Saskatchewan.” .
“It makes no sense to greet people seeking help for mental health issues with the message which could potentially imply that suicide is an option,” said the Minister for Mental Health and Dependencies , Everett Hindley.
Hindley said he made the switch after instructions were given to the SHA once Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters put the matter to him.
“Hearing this message from the health line, I knew this was very problematic and needed to change,” Batters said. “When I contacted the minister, he agreed.”
Last week, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier was briefed on the hotline options. He tweeted “[the SHA] is doing [death] quick and easy.”
“I was shocked,” Bernier said in an interview with CTV News. “When you call this number it should be for medical assistance. I was happy when they removed that option.
Dying with Dignity is a support service that provides information on end-of-life care, including assisted dying.
“People across Canada should have access to information about all health care services available to them,” the organization said in an email. “It’s important that systems like Saskatchewan’s 811 Health Information Services put the needs of callers in crisis first.
Bernier called this option a “promotion of assisted suicide” and believes that a patient and their family should make these decisions.
“The promotion of this option is there all the time,” he said. “The government shouldn’t be promoting this when you call the health emergency line.”
The Saskatchewan NDP told CTV News in an email “while it is important to be sensitive to the needs of 811 callers who are at risk of suicide, the government should find a solution to ensure that residents calling 811 request information on how to access MAID. can find it.
Hindley reiterated that there were no changes to residents’ access to MAID in the province. The SHA said the public can still access support and information by calling 1-833-473-MAID (6243).
In 2017, the federal government passed Bill C-7 which granted physicians and nurse practitioners the ability to provide medical assistance in dying as a health care service.
In 2021, eligibility expanded to include people who are in intolerable pain but are not close to natural death and, possibly, people with irremediable mental illness.
One doctor said MAID could be a viable option for end-of-life care, but saw people who were not near the end of their life turn to the service in desperation.
“Death does not have to be reasonably foreseeable and it opened up the possible use of [MAID]said Dr. Amit Arya, palliative care lead for Kensington Health in Toronto. “People are suffering, but not because of a medical diagnosis.”
Health Canada said in a statement to CTV News that the eligibility criteria and safeguards in place set the bar high for accessing MAID.
“Just as people with physical illnesses must be in severe pain and in a state of advanced decline,” the statement read. “Only people with serious, long-standing mental illness who have resisted multiple treatments and interventions would be considered eligible for MIAD.”
Senator Batters has been a strong advocate for mental health, voting against the amendment and the expansion last year.
“We need to get people with mental illness better treatment,” Batters said. “We need to give people real resources and real help, not just an easier way to access suicide.”
“If we want to give people access to medical assistance in dying – and we should,” said Dr Arya. “So we should also help people to live.”
When Bernier was an MP, he voted in favor of allowing access to MAID in extreme end-of-life circumstances, but said the expansion was too vague and wanted reform.
“I understand that the majority of cases are people at the end of life with an extreme medical condition,” he said. “But it must be for each case.”
The government said the bill addressed concerns such as difficulties in establishing irremediability or incurability.
“[It] distinguishes suicidal patients from those who make a rational and sustained request for MAID,” they said. “It addresses key vulnerabilities in motivation to consider MAID.”
The expanded eligibility for MAID will come into effect next year.