Published by the Mercury News on September 3, 2021

The incoming Bishop for the Diocese of San Jose, Oscar Cantu, talks to this newspaper on Oct. 4, 2018, in San Jose. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

How we care for the sick and dying speaks volumes about who we are as a people

In our Hispanic culture, caring for the sick and the dying is part of us. We hold the family close yet reach far to include many in our circle. We cherish the older generation, our abuelas and abuelos. And on dia de los Muertos we decorate elaborate altars to remember our beloved deceased.

As with many groups, we take pride in our care for the sick. But that compassion and care has not been extended to everyone in California. It’s a situation society must urgently address.

Extraordinarily, instead of focusing on solutions to the injustice caused by inadequate health care, California is debating whether to make physician-assisted suicide easier and to open the “option” to more minorities.

Priorities seem askew.

California’s law legalizing physician-assisted suicide passed during a special session called to address one issue — insufficient funding for MediCal.

Six years later, the state has still not addressed the funding shortfall but instead is debating a bill to make it easier to receive a lethal prescription from a doctor.

Lack of funding exacerbates the problems many minorities and vulnerable populations already have in receiving basic health care. It reduces the quality of life for those who can’t get care for routine, treatable medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. And it reduces options at the end of life for palliative and hospice care.

But perhaps worst of all, SB 380 (Eggman, D-Stockton) sends a dangerous message to minorities and vulnerable populations: It costs too much to care for you but California has another “option” you might consider.

No minority demands that.

Research in the Journal of Palliative Medicine shows wide disparities in assessment and diagnosis of pain for Hispanics and African-American people versus White people across age groups, diagnoses and settings. Similar trends have been demonstrated for Asians and Native Americans in nursing homes.

Yet in this environment, during an “oversight” hearing, one senator expressed concern that mostly White people were using the law.  He asked how the state could make more underserved and non-English speaking populations aware of the option.

Do we require any clearer illustration of the effects of the health care disparity than today’s pandemic? The CDC cites evidence that three factors lead to severe illness from COVID-19: lack of health care, general health status, and gaps in education, income and health.

Is assisted suicide really a choice when you are not able to receive basic health care?

Instead, easy access to doctor-assisted suicide may very well create pressure on patients and families for the “less expensive” route.

Advocates for physician-assisted suicide promised some of the toughest “safeguards” in the nation. They say the program is working well, that there have been no abuses, and that we can safely lift some of the safeguards.

But there is a problem — there’s not enough data to support their claims.

In fact, there is a surprisingly large amount of information we don’t know about patients seeking end of life drugs — including mental health evaluations, complications with dosage or if pain management or other alternatives were explored.

California does not require physicians to complete documentation. Doctors can fill out the documents — or not. There is no penalty for missing or for incomplete paperwork.

That is too many unknowns in what is, literally, a matter of life and death.

How we care for the sick and dying speaks volumes about who we are as a people. Californians need to ask ourselves if the health care “choices” we offer to our people affirm the value of their lives or tell them they no longer matter.

Oscar Cantú is bishop of the San Jose Diocese.