CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Vermont has become the first state in the country to change its Medical Aid in Dying Law to allow terminally ill out-of-state residents to end their lives. Republican Governor Phil Scott signed the bill that removes the residency requirement on Tuesday. NEWS10’s Anya Tucker spoke with a Capital Region woman who says the option is giving her some peace of mind as she faces her own cancer diagnosis.

Cassandra Johnston says it was around the holidays when she got the news from her doctors. “So, the day after Thanksgiving last year, I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. So, from there they came up with a very aggressive treatment plan.” She says that the plan includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. “The doctors are hopeful. They think that it’s being effective. But we don’t know for sure,” she said.

Johnston, who lives in Rexford, New York says she felt a sense of relief knowing that the neighboring state of Vermont, just ended their residency requirement for Medical Aid in Dying. “It was huge that Vermont dropped that requirement. And people like me, if I need that option, that there will be somewhere for me to go that’s really close by,” she added.

Vermont is one of 10 states that allows this kind of end-of-life medical assistance. But it is the first state in the nation to open up the practice to out-of-state terminally ill patients. “Right now, many people are calling just trying to understand the parameters of the law,” said Betsy Walkerman, President of Patient Choices Vermont. Patient Choices is an organization dedicated to educating people about Medical Aid in Dying.

Walkerman dismisses criticism or notions that the law opens the door to some sort of assisted death tourism or that it lacks safeguards against coercing sick patients. She points to the 173 people in Vermont over the past 10 years who have qualified for medical aid in dying. “And even of those people, just a portion of them actually, take the medication. Quite a few people will qualify and even have the medication in hand, which can be very comforting to people to know that they have the option,” she said.

The requirements are numerous and could take months. Patients must be 18 years or older, be mentally competent, and diagnosed as terminally ill (having 6 months or less to live). They are required to make several requests (both written and oral) to physicians. And those requests must be signed by witnesses. “People have peace of mind,” said Johnston. “Sometimes that’s all they need that if things take a turn for the worse and there’s going to be a lot of pain and suffering. Then they can take it. And if not, you know, they don’t need it. And that’s fine too.”

Right to Life of New York is also speaking out on this issue. Lori Kehoe, spokesperson for the organization sent NEWS10 this statement: “Assisted suicide is the ultimate betrayal of someone at his/her most vulnerable moment. For Vermont to announce itself a destination for suicide just exposes their clear lack of compassion and regard for human dignity. This is the time to rally all resources to help, not entice people away from their families and loved ones. It is distressing to think that Vermont would be luring people into death instead of using those resources to help people. Assisted suicide creates a dangerous double standard. On one hand, we have suicide prevention programs, understanding that people who are desperate need help. And on the other, separating people from the ones who love them the most while the state itself abandons them. Vermont is a beautiful state that is creating an ugly legacy.”

Jeanne Chirico, President and CEO of the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York State also spoke with NEWS10’s Anya Tucker over the phone. Chirico told Anya that New York is last in the nation for hospice utilization, and they are trying to get the word out that there are options for terminally ill people. “There’s a fear that sometimes provoked the fear for medical aid in dying. Not saying it’s [medical aid in dying] not justified. I’m just saying that hospice providers want to make sure that people understand that the sooner you can engage in conversations about hospice and palliative care we believe the less likely you will feel the need for medical aid in dying,” said Chirico.