An organ shortage kills 30 Americans every day. Is it time to pay donors? By Keith Humphreys.
"Thirty years ago this week, President Reagan signed the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), which established the federal legal framework for the procurement, donation and transplantation of organs needed by desperately ill Americans. The law’s advocates hoped that it would end organ shortages, but today over 120,000 Americans are on waiting lists. With the need for organs – especially kidneys -- projected to outstrip supply even more in coming years, intense debate has broken out over whether NOTA should be amended to allow funding of incentives for donors.
The interests at stake are colossal. About 30 Americans a day either die on the waiting list or are removed from it because they have become too ill to receive a transplant. Taxpayers also bear a significant burden in the case of kidneys because of the special status of renal dialysis within the Medicare program. In 1972, Congress mandated that Medicare cover the costs of care for end stage renal disease regardless of patient age. In 2011, over 500,000 people took advantage of this benefit at a cost of over $34 billion, which is more than 6% of Medicare’s entire budget.
One commonly proposed solution to the organ shortage derives from behavioral economic “nudge” principles. Rather than requiring Americans to complete paperwork in order to opt-in to donation at death, the country could shift to the European model of presuming that donation at death was acceptable. But Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization, points out that “The recovery rate for deceased donors in the United States is actually better than that of European nations with presumed consent laws. "
"In any event, because less than 1% of deceased individuals are medically eligible to donate organs, and 75% of this group in the United States in fact does so, there simply isn’t enough “there there” to remedy the shortage with improved recovery from deceased donors.
This brings up the currently illegal option of providing incentives for living donors. NOTA’s main Capitol Hill champion, a then little-known Congressman Al Gore Jr., allowed for the possibility of rewarding donors if the purely altruism-driven donation system did not keep up with demand. Today, one of the leading exponents of this idea is Dr. Sally Satel, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Sally recently participated in a forum on organ donation at Stanford Medical School, after which I interviewed her regarding her proposal to incentivize kidney donation. Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.
Keith Humphreys: What kind of incentives would you envision being tested and who would provide them?
Sally Satel: Donor enrichment would need to begin as a pilot trial. No one is talking about a traditional free market or private contract system. No organ “sales.” And no large lump sum of cash to donors. Those of us who want to test the power of incentives to increase the number of people receiving kidney transplants – and it is a rich network of transplant surgeons, nephrologists, legal scholars, economists, and bioethicists – envision a system where every needy patient, not just the financially well-off, can benefit.
Here is one model: a governmental entity, or a designated charity, would offer in-kind rewards, like a contribution to the donor’s retirement fund, an income tax credit or a tuition voucher, or a gift to a charity designated by the donor. Because a third party provides the reward, all patients, not just the financially secure, will benefit.
Meanwhile, imposing a waiting period of at least six months would ensure that donors didn’t act impulsively and that they were giving fully informed consent. Prospective compensated donors would be carefully screened for physical and emotional health, as is done for all donors now. The use of in-kind benefits coupled with a waiting period would screen out financially desperate individuals who might otherwise rush to donate for a large sum of instant cash and later regret it.
The donors’ kidneys would be distributed to people on the waiting list, according to the rules now in place. People who wanted to donate a kidney to a specific person — say, a father to a son — would still be able to, outside this system. Finally, all rewarded donors would be guaranteed follow-up medical care for any complications, which is not ensured now.