A Las Vegas doctor says that he remembers the account described in an anti-assisted-suicide advertisement of an insurer denying life-saving treatment to a patient, while pushing doctors to move forward with a prescription of lethal drugs.
Dr. Sameer Tapryal was a senior resident at the University of Nevada-Reno School of Medicine when Dr. Brian Callister, an instructor at the program and the man featured in the ad, received word from an insurance company that it would rather fund assisted suicide for a patient than provide life-saving treatment in another hospital. Tapryal said that the details mentioned in the ad match up with a conversation he had with Callister at the time of one of the incidents.
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"When we were seeing that patient, he [Callister] did bring that [the call with the insurer] up in the course of that conversation," Tapryal said.
Tapryal said he was shocked to hear about the insurer's response to a requested transfer of the patient—whose name, condition, and other details he could not discuss due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects patient privacy. He said that he was not in the room when the conversation took place, but spoke with Callister shortly afterward. He added that had no reason to doubt Callister's account of the discussion.
"Dr. Callister, if he said it, it did happen. He is a trusted physician that is respected by all," Tapyral said.
Callister, the former head of the Nevada Medical Association, appeared in a campaign advertisement opposing a bill that would make Nevada the seventh state, along with the District of Columbia, to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients who have been diagnosed as terminally ill. In the minute-long spot released by the anti-assisted suicide Patients Rights Action Fund, Callister said that he dealt with two insurance companies from Oregon and California that refused his request for hospital transfers to provide life-saving treatment to two patients. The insurers, according to Callister, instead said that the doctor should discuss assisted suicide with the patients.
"As much as most insurance companies try to come across as your best friend they want to do whatever the least costly thing is. It's a lot cheaper to grab a couple drugs, kill you, than it is to provide you life-sustaining therapy," Callister says in the ad.
Kat West, the national director of policy and programs at the pro-medical aid in dying group Compassion & Choices, told the Washington Free Beacon that she is skeptical of Callister's story and that he should have filed a complaint with Oregon and California following the conversations.
"I am pretty skeptical of Dr. Callister's claims. If that's true we'll be appalled and outraged about this. … In California the aid in dying law specifically says an insurance company could not do that," she said. "Releasing the name of the insurance company by no means would identify that patient."
Callister told the Washington Free Beacon that the hospital he works at transfers "maybe a handful of patients a year" to facilities in California and Oregon for such life-saving treatment and that identifying the insurance companies or specifying dates would make it easy to identify the patients. He said he made the determination not to discuss further details about the cases after consulting with HIPAA attorney Terra Lord Parten of McAfee & Taft. Parten confirmed that she advised PRAF that disclosing the insurers would potentially violate HIPAA.
Callister dismissed the criticism of the ad and the allegation that he had invented the conversation with the insurers.
"What possible motivation could I have as a patient advocate to make this stuff up?" he said. "I fully expected them [bill supporters] to do that because they have no other defense."
Tapryal, now an internist based in Las Vegas, had not heard of the ad until the Washington Free Beacon contacted him. He emphasized that he had not formed an opinion about assisted suicide. Asked if Dr. Callister had ever been known to be political Tapryal said, "No, he's very responsible, very accountable to patients, and the staff love him."
The Nevada state Senate passed the assisted suicide bill by one vote in May. The bill is now being debated before the state Assembly Committee on Health and Human Services.