HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut lawmakers agreed Friday to revisit legislation allowing doctors to prescribe medication to help mentally competent, terminally ill patients end their lives, launching one of the more hotly contested issues of this year’s short legislative session.
Both opponents and proponents claimed they’re being outgunned by the other side.
In recent weeks, the socially conservative Family Institute of Connecticut has sent out urgent fundraising messages seeking contributions, claiming proponents of the legislation have deep pockets, spending thousands of dollars on advertising and lobbying.
“What we have is a group whose out-of-state funders have funded a major campaign here in Connecticut, saying, ‘Here are your marching orders in Connecticut. Pass this bill,’” said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute.
Citing state ethics filings, he said the national advocacy group Compassion and Choices spent more than $165,000 lobbying for the legislation last year and more than $20,000 in January of 2014.
But the Connecticut director of Compassion and Choices says apparently multiple groups are battling this year’s bill at the state Capitol, including the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference.
“We know there are some powerful interests aligning against this and they have deep pockets too,” said Tim Appleton, referring to the Catholic leaders. “I think at last count, there are a lot of lobbyists out here trying to deny residents choices at end of life. And they have a very powerful voice here as well.”
Appleton said his group has seen growing grassroots support for the legislation in Connecticut, adding how many residents have been turning out for informational forums the group has held around the state recently.
“Last year, I would drive all the way down to Stamford and meet with three people. Now I drive down to Stamford or Greenwich, and there are maybe 80 people in the room,” he said. “The crowds are growing and that gives me great comfort.”
On Friday, the legislature’s Public Health Committee okayed a bill for consideration that would legalize aid-in-dying. A public hearing will likely be held in March.
Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Willimantic, the panel’s co-chairwoman, said she expects lawmakers will work off the bill that was crafted last year and make any changes based on testimony from the public hearing and input from lawmakers. Johnson, who supports the legislation, said she could not predict whether the bill will make it out of committee this year. She said a vote was not taken last year because there were not enough of them.
Last year’s bill added restrictions to the original measure, based on concerns raised during hearing testimony. For example, a doctor must make a diagnosis that a terminally ill patient who requests to end his or her life must have six months or less to live. The doctor would then have an agreement with the patient that he or she would sign with two witnesses, who agree the patient was not under duress. Last year’s bill required that same agreement to be signed again two weeks later, with two witnesses. The patient would then have access to the medication.
“Once they have the access, many people don’t use it. They just have the access,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she isn’t aware of any extraordinary lobbying efforts by Compassion and Choices. She said there appear to be more lobbyists opposing the bill.
“I heard they hired all the rest of the lobbyists in the building. We only have, I think, one firm that’s doing it,” Johnson said. “It’s one group.”
But Wolfgang denies the opposition is spending big money to defeat the bill. One of the Family Institute’s partners is Second Thoughts Connecticut, an advocacy group for people with disabilities that says it is running on a shoestring budget.
“What we do have is a wide coalition,” Wolfgang said.
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