A Pennsylvania lawmaker plans to introduce legislation this week that would allow pilot programs to give non-cash rewards to people who donate a kidney or part of their liver.
The proposal from U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, includes potential rewards for donors such as health insurance, tax credits, contributions to the donor’s favorite charity and tuition reimbursement.
Federal law prohibits buying or selling organs for transplantation, but Cartwright said his proposal aims to address a dire organ shortage while saving the government money.
He estimates that eliminating the nation’s bloated organ wait list could save more than $5.5 billion per year in medical costs for people with end-stage renal disease.
Cartwright said it’s “a national outrage that 22 people die every day waiting for a transplant.”
“The current system is not working, and the only way to find out what would make it work is to try something new,” Cartwright told the Tribune-Review. “I have support on both sides of the aisle because people understand we need to try something different.”
The congressman emphasized that his plan would not pay donors for their organs but simply provide an incentive to donate. To avoid corruption, an ethics control board would monitor the program, and the rewards would not be transferable to other people, he said.
The legislation also would call for donors to be reimbursed for time off work and travel and costs associated with the surgery, which can be prohibitive.
John Innocenti, president of UPMC Presbyterian, said he was not familiar with Cartwright’s proposal.
“In today’s world, we can’t provide incentive for organ donations, we can’t pay for donations,” he said. “It’s just not allowed or considered ethical under current laws.”
Proposals to reward organ donors have been introduced over the years, as organ procurement organizations, physicians and transplant centers try to address a shortage of livers, kidneys and other organs. Bills have featured proposals to reimburse donors’ families for funeral expenses and bereavement counseling.
As the industry and lawmakers debate the latest proposal, UPMC on Tuesday started an online community to increase living donor transplant awareness.
The partnership between UPMC and the nonprofit Donate Life America also launched a Facebook page for donors, patients and doctors to share stories and boost education about living donations. More than 1 billion people use Facebook worldwide.
“Living donation is key, and it’s something that we need to commit our time and our resources to,” said Karen Headley, national development director at Donate Life America, which is dedicated to increasing organ, eye and tissue donations. “There is a huge need.”
There are more than 120,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant, and about 95 percent of them await livers or kidneys, according to Headley.
The partnership’s ultimate goal is to reduce pediatric and adult liver and kidney waiting lists.
“This is our lives, trying to find organs for these patients,” said Dr. Christopher Hughes, UPMC’s surgical director of liver transplantation. “The advances in living donor transplantation over the past decade or so have been tremendous.”
Kathy Monteverde, 56, of Shaler learned firsthand about living donation when her 25-year-old son Jeremy gave up part of his liver to save her life.
When she told her friends about the Sept. 8 transplant at UPMC Montefiore, someone inquired: “Can I ask, is your son dead?”
“I had to explain that he was alive — it was a living donation,” she said, while explaining her recovery from a sickness known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis or NASH.
Donya McCoy of Elizabethtown is well aware of the power of using social media to find a donor.
She turned to Facebook in 2014 for transplant assistance. Her daughter Kennedy was 3 at the time and needed someone with O-positive blood to donate 25 percent of his or her liver to save her life. Kennedy had a rare, terminal metabolic disorder that did not allow her body to process protein.
“I couldn’t just start asking people in the grocery store, and Facebook seemed like the largest network of people unrelated to me,” she said. “I figured I could put a request out there and maybe someone would come forward. I put it out there as ‘the request of a lifetime.’ As a mom, I had to exhaust all of the options to try and save her.”
Mike Thompson, a Bethlehem firefighter and former high school classmate of McCoy’s, saw the post and agreed to help.
“We started the process, and he wound up being the prefect match,” she said.
The living donor transplant occurred Nov. 11, 2014, at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
“Pretty incredible,” said McCoy. “Kennedy is doing really great. She is growing, and her brain development is just astounding. For me, it’s really overwhelming, his selflessness.”
She said UPMC’s collaboration will better connect the nation’s transplant community.
“Mike saved a child’s life through social media,” McCoy said.
She said she was intrigued with Cartwright’s legislation.
“I definitely think that incentives should be considered,” she said. “I would love to work with him on that project if he would want help from a mom who went through this.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.