Barbara Wagner

In 2008, Oregon resident Barbara Wagner, a 64 year-old great-grandmother, was informed that her health insurance company would not cover the cost of her cancer treatment, but that the Oregon Health Plan would cover the cost of drugs for her assisted suicide [1]. Barbara had been a lower-income healthcare worker, waitress, and school bus driver who, upon learning of the return of her lung cancer, was informed by her health insurance company that it would not cover the monthly cost of $4,000 for the life-saving medication [2]. However, she was informed, the cost of the drugs to end her life through assisted suicide would be covered by the Oregon Health Plan, which would cost about $50 in comparison [3].

According to Wagner herself, she “got a letter in the mail that basically said if you want to take the pills, we will help you get that from the doctor and we will stand there and watch you die. But we won’t give you the medication to live” [4].

She further stated “I’m not too good today […] But I’m opposed to the [assisted suicide] law. I haven’t considered it, even at my lowest point.” [5]

Wagner’s daughter, Susie May, reported that “”I was the first person my mom called when she got the letter […] While I was telling her, ‘Mom, it will be ok,’ I was crying, but trying to stay brave for her […] I’ve talked to so many people who have gone through the same problems with the Oregon Health Plan” [6].

Dennis Wagner, the ex-husband of Barbara Wagner, commented that “”My reaction is pretty typical […] I am sick and tired of the dollar being the bottom line of everything. We need to put human life above the dollar” [7].

Oregon legalised physician assisted suicide in 1997 following the passage of the Death with Dignity Act in 1994. This has permitted doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for self-administration to mentally competent Oregon residents above the age of 18 who are suffering terminal illness and likely to die within six months [8].

The latest report for 2020 showed around 28% increase in the number of DWDA deaths from 2019, which is fifteen times more than the number of deaths in its first year of 1998 [9].

4.5% of patients since 1998 cited ‘financial implications of treatment’ among their end of life concerns [10].

According to Oregon’s Prioritized List of Health Services 2020, cancer treatment is limited according to relative life expectancy while assisted suicide services are fully covered [11].