The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) has removed an option on its 8-1-1 health line that provides information on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID).
The SHA website says the number is a “confidential, 24-hour health and mental health and addictions advice, education and support telephone line available to the people of Saskatchewan.”
“It does not make sense to greet people who are seeking help with mental health issues with the message that could potentially imply that suicide is an option,” said Minister of Mental health and Addictions Everett Hindley.
Hindley says he made the change under the direction of the SHA after Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters brought the issue forward to him.
“Hearing that health line message, I knew it was very problematic and needed to change,” said Batters. “When I contacted the minister, he agreed.”
Last week, leader of the People’s Party of Canada Maxime Bernier was made aware of the phoneline’s options. He tweeted “[the SHA] is making [death] quick and easy.”
“I was shocked,” said Bernier in an interview with CTV News. “When you call that number, it should be for medical assistance. I was pleased when they removed that option.”
Dying with Dignity is a support service that provides information on end-of-life care including assisted death.
“People across Canada should have access to information about all the health care services available to them,” the organization said in an email. “It is important that systems such as Saskatchewan’s 811 health information services prioritize the needs of callers who are in crisis.”
Bernier called the option a “promotion of assisted suicide” and believes a patient and his or her family should be making those decisions.
“The promotion of that option is out there all the time,” he said. “The government should not be promoting that when you call the health emergency line.”
The Saskatchewan NDP told CTV News in an email “although, it is important to be sensitive to the needs of 811 callers who may be at risk of suicide, the government should find a solution to ensure residents calling 811 seeking information about how to access MAID can find it.”
Hindley reiterated there was no changes for resident’s access to MAID in the province. The SHA said the public may still access support and information by called 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, expanded eligibility to include individuals who are intolerably suffering but are not near natural death and eventually people suffering from irremediable mental illness.
One doctor said MAID may be a viable option for end-of-life care but has seen people not near the end of their life turn to the service in desperation.
“Death does not have to be reasonably foreseeable and it has opened the possible use of [MAID],” said Dr. Amit Arya, the palliative care lead for Kensington Health in Toronto. “People are suffering, but not because of a medical diagnosis.”
Senator Batters has been an outspoken mental health advocate, voting against the amendment and expansion last year.
“We need to be providing people with mental illness with better treatment,” said Batters. “We need to offer people real resources and real help, not just an easier way to access suicide.”
“If we are going to provide people access to medical assistance in dying – and we should,” said Dr. Arya. “Then we should also help people to live.”
When Bernier was a member of parliament, he voted in favour of the ability to access MAID in extreme, end-of-life circumstances but said the expansion is too vague and wants to see reform.
“I understand that the majority of cases are people at the end of their life with an extreme medical condition,” he said. “But that must be for every case.”
CTV News has reached out to Health Canada and is awaiting a response. The expanded eligibility for MAID will come into effect next year.