The advertisements beckon: "Just one pint of your healthy blood can save up to three lives." "An hour of your time can mean a lifetime for someone else." "If you're looking for a sign, this is it! There's a CRITICAL NEED for blood and platelets."
The pleas make blood shortages out to be a constant crisis, made even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. Blood and its derivatives—namely red blood cells, platelets and plasma—indeed are essential to modern medicine. And hospital consolidations and cost-cutting measures have largely left the jobs of collecting, processing and distributing the precious resource to not-for-profit blood centers.
In an oft-overlooked and little-known industry, blood centers have become major businesses that depend on a steady stream of product—collected from altruistic donors—that is later sold to hospitals for hundreds of dollars per unit.
One player in particular stands out for the way it has turned blood into big business, by snapping up blood centers across the country, launching alternative revenue streams and doling out six-figure bonuses to its executives: the New York Blood Center, which provides as much as 90% of the city's supply.
The nonprofit has spent the past decade building an empire that now spans five blood centers serving 17 states, a genomics lab, a research institute and a number of clinical-services programs that collectively employ roughly 2,000 workers. Its annual revenue surged 24% in the most recently reported fiscal year, to nearly $500 million.
The federal government has defined blood as an economic commodity subject to U.S. trade laws, and blood industry executives say a corporation-style playbook is well suited for managing the valuable product.
It's a booming business, according to interviews with a dozen industry experts, including current and former executives and employees of blood centers in New York and elsewhere, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of nonprofit tax filings. Prices are rising, and a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions is creating hospital behemoths with huge market share and even greater supply needs. Meanwhile, hospital-based blood banks are growing scarcer, and the pandemic is accelerating demand.