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Liberal government seeking delay to expanding medically assisted dying program

Justice minister: ‘those working in the health-care system say that more time is needed’
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Liberal government announced Thursday it will seek to delay the expansion of Canada’s assisted-dying regime to include people whose sole underlying conditions are mental disorders.

Justice Minister David Lametti said during a news conference that the government has heard concerns the health-care system might not be prepared to handle those complicated cases.

“Some provinces, territories and those working in the health-care system say that more time is needed,” he said.

“That includes having the time to implement those practice standards, and to complete and disseminate key resources that are being developed for clinicians and other health-care system partners to address these more complex MAID requests.”

An update to Canada’s medical assistance in dying legislation that passed in the spring of 2021 included a provision to temporarily exclude those whose sole underlying condition is a mental disorder from eligibility.

The provision is set to expire on March 17, 2023.

Dying with Dignity Canada, a non-profit that advocates for assisted dying, called the delay disappointing.

The group’s CEO, Helen Long, said she acknowledged the government’s concerns and its desire to “get things right” but said that since 2021, there has been rigorous study of how the expansion will work.

“It’s stigmatizing, discriminatory, unconstitutional,” she said. “And we’re really concerned about those who suffer intolerably and who have been waiting for that opportunity to be assessed for MAID.”

An expert panel studying the issue has heard concerns from clinicians, researchers and academics who questioned whether the proper safeguards are in place to expand the eligibility criteria without putting people with mental disorders or those living in poverty at risk.

Mental Health Minister Carolyn Bennett said the expert panel determined that the safeguards in place under the current regime are “excellent.”

“I think that there is very clear consensus this would be very rare, that the assessment may be pending over a long period of time, a number of different assessments,” she said.

Lametti added that the expert panel’s chair, Dr. Mona Gupta, is among those who feel that clinicians in Canada are ready to handle the expansion.

However, he acknowledged that not everyone is ready, and he has heard from those who “would like a short delay.”

In order to make that happen, the minority government will need to amend the existing legislation. Lametti said he expects there is widespread support for the move from other parties in the House of Commons and among senators.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who sits on a joint parliamentary committee that is studying medically assisted dying, said the decision to now seek a delay in the expansion underscores the “reckless approach” the Liberals have taken on the issue.

He argued it is “not safe to expand MAID in cases of mental illness.”

The NDP said it has heard “serious concerns” about the expansion of MAID and has called for better supports and treatments for people with mental disorders.

“Even though the Liberals called for this expansion, they haven’t acted to improve other options or programs to help people suffering from mental or physical disorders,” NDP MP Alistair MacGregor said in a written statement.

Lametti said any cases of medically assisted deaths as a result of mental disorders will follow a long period of treatment and insisted the federal government has spent millions of dollars on improving mental health care.

“I want to assure Canadians that it isn’t just the case that you can walk off the street and seek MAID if you’re feeling depressed,” he said.

Cooper criticized the government for failing to provide details Thursday about when the legislation will be introduced or how long the extension will be.

But Lametti said he did not want to speculate about the length of the proposed extension before negotiations with other parties begin.

Despite the criticism, the Conservatives said Thursday that pausing the expansion is the “only responsible course of action,” and the NDP promised to closely review any legislation.

The House of Commons and Senate have adjourned for the holidays. They are expected to resume sitting at the end of January.

—David Fraser, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Canada should pause MAID for people with mental disorders: psychiatrists