A geographically broader sharing of organs will perhaps favor the sickest patients awaiting transplants, but the real deal is to increase organ supplies.
More than 60,000 Americans await organ transplants, and technological advances have sparked nearly a tripling of demand since 1990. Sadly, only an estimated 5,500 people will make their organs available this year, and nearly that many patients will die awaiting a transplant.
New HHS regulations intended to overhaul the nation's system for organ allocation would give the federal government a more direct role in setting transplant policies. The new rules generally favor the sickest patients and minimize the influence of geography in making matches, especially for livers. On paper, it looks like good public policy for what is often a matter of life or death.
The new rules were expected to go into effect by early next year. But last week, politics entered the picture. Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi used the cover of night to slip into pending tax legislation a provision that would delay the rules for months.
More infighting can be expected. As our Scott Hensley has reported, the 1984 law that shaped the organ transplant system is up for reauthorization, which will further politicize the situation. Debate and political warfare, however, are not helping the transplant community increase organ donations.
A better idea is a coordinated grass-roots education drive. Healthcare providers should lead the way by organizing local public forums that encourage donations. Medical and ethical experts should offer advice on how patients and their families can more comfortably agree on organ donation.
And all options should be discussed, including Pennsylvania's controversial program, which grants $300 to the families of organ donors to help pay burial expenses. Also fair philosophical fodder are radical ideas, such as having people "opt out" of donating organs-that is, signing something saying they did not want to donate-rather than "opt in" to donating.
Internally, providers need to work harder to identify potential donors and obtain family consent. Even though the transplant distribution system probably is going national, the procurement process will depend on the teamwork and efforts of the local healthcare community.