Kidneys are by far the most in-demand organ for transplants. Yet Chicago-area hospitals are putting down their scalpels and taking on fewer cases.
In 2015, local transplant centers collectively performed nearly two-thirds fewer kidney transplants than they did just five years ago. Meanwhile, the waiting list for a kidney in Illinois reached its highest point in nearly 30 years in 2013 and has dipped only slightly since then.
The shift worries organ donation advocates, who blame the drop in transplants on hospitals being more cautious as federal regulations became more rigorous in the past decade. Last year, Gift of Hope, a nonprofit organ donation advocacy group in Itasca, sent more than 150 kidneys to patients in other states after Illinois transplant hospitals turned some of them down, the organization's CEO, Kevin Cmunt, says. Another 121 kidneys were used for research instead. Collectively, hospitals statewide performed 439 kidney transplants in 2015.
“Every day these regulations are out there causing the loss of organs and disadvantaging patients is bad,” Cmunt says.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which regulates the transplant industry, did not make anyone available for an interview. But experts say the federal agency enhanced its scrutiny on transplant programs to boost survival rates for patients and the organs they receive.
Illinois has nine hospitals that perform transplants, with seven of them in the Chicago area. It's a high-profile business that brings cachet to a hospital and its specialists. But transplants are among the riskiest procedures and therefore heavily monitored.
It's a balancing act for hospitals that are trying to keep up with the demand for transplants but risk being stripped of Medicare and Medicaid funding if they fall below CMS standards. They're also supervised by the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which sets its own standards for hospitals.
About half of the nearly 250 transplant programs in the nation were flagged for alleged shortcomings from 2007 to 2012. The CMS penalties are considered more severe since they involve potentially cutting off funding, while UNOS generally seeks to help hospitals improve their programs through a peer-review process.
Streeterville-based Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Loyola University Medical Center in west suburban Maywood and University of Illinois Medical Center on the Near West Side have been flagged by CMS in recent years.