Two examples have showed up in my email stream lately, the first having to do with those who support "death with dignity" and would like physicians to be allowed to help people nearing the end of life to die peacefully. The second comes from the debate about whether the ban on compensating kidney donors should be relaxed.
"Perhaps the moment is right for broaching the idea of what we might call prophylactic suicide: the decision of an elderly person to pre-empt the grim reaper and avoid the disabilities of extended life.
Organizations such as Compassion and Choices, and Final Exit, are campaigning for dignified terminations of life for those with incurable diseases. And with some success, since Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana have recently established the right to aid-in-dying. What I propose goes a step further, extending the right to people before they face terminal or debilitating illnesses.
With nearly half of people 85 or older suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, concerns about quality of life in old age are reasonable, even if opinions about what to do about the situation vary widely. However sane prophylactic suicide might be, getting assistance is illegal."
And here's a counterpoint to the cautious proposal by Sally Satel that I blogged about yesterday.
The Kidney Crisis
by Richard A. Epstein
Monday, October 27, 2014
"Recently, a distinguished list of academics signed an open letter to President Barack Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the leaders of Congress. The letter implored the administration to take prompt and effective steps to end the shortage of organs now available for transplants, especially kidneys. Its signatories announced: “We call for the swift initiation of evidence-based research on ways to offer benefits to organ donors in order to expand the availability of transplants.“
I chose not to sign that letter. It was not because I disagreed with its unhappy diagnosis that the chronic shortage of organs available for transplants, especially kidneys, is inexcusable; on that point, the letter was spot on. Rather, I refused to sign because I believe that the letter’s call to action was hopelessly slow in the face of an unending cascade of unnecessary deaths. If heeded, its call will be the latest in a long series of well-intentioned failed attempts to end the government scourge created by the current ban on kidney sales. This ban was implemented by the National Organ Transplantation Act (“NOTA”) of 1984, sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch and then-Representative Al Gore. NOTA’s central provision makes it illegal to “acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer” an organ to another person for “valuable consideration,” which with minor exceptions blocks both cash and in-kind payments.
To solve the problem of organ shortages, we must begin by repealing NOTA and implementing a free market for organs. The area in which that voluntary market would work best is for kidneys, both live and cadaveric. Kidneys are the most desperately sought organ. Of the close to 125,000 people now waiting on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, (OPTN) transplant list, more than 100,000 are waiting for kidneys, and the number is rising daily. Relative to transplants of pancreas, livers, hearts, lungs, and intestines, kidney transfers are the easiest to execute, with the greatest benefits to the recipients and the transferors alike.
The open letter reports that we are in a losing battle with kidney shortages. On the supply side, the number of live donations is now down to about 5,700 per year from 6,000 per year some five years ago. Most of those transfers come from family members, where the matches may be less than ideal, and the health of the donor less than perfect. Also on the supply side, the number of accidental deaths of young individuals is down, which cuts off, for the best of reasons, the most desirable source of cadaveric kidneys. On the demand side, better healthcare now allows individuals who suffer from diabetes and kidney disease to live long enough so that they will actually need dialysis or other treatment.
The ability to get organ donations from strangers is very small even though the net benefits are enormous. The mortality risk to the donor is in the order of 3 parts in 10,000. The extra life to the recipient of a live kidney is in the order of 15 to 20 years. (That figure is far greater than the gains from a cadaveric kidney, whose condition is likely to be degraded at the time of death, and to deteriorate thereafter in the interval needed to complete transplantation, if consent can be obtained in time from grieving relatives.) The gains to recipients of a live transaction, if monetized, could easily exceed one, even two, million dollars, at a total cost that is below $100,000 per donor, which includes personal discomfort, loss of work time, and family dislocations. But altruism does not work well when donors have to incur uncompensated losses of that size. Unfortunately, the huge potential for gains from trade is blocked by the firm NOTA prohibition against organ sales.
The open letter does not refer to those gains from trade. It in fact criticizes them. “To ensure equality,” it reads, “private transactions between individuals should remain prohibited.” The letter then seeks to accomplish the impossible by endorsing a centralized approach administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). This nonprofit organization was founded in 1984, when the risks of kidney transplants were greater and the waiting lists far shorter than the 4.3 years of today. This is up from 2.8 years only five years ago. If UNOS remains in charge, the waiting times will continue to grow.
On the positive side, the letter proposes a set of possible healthcare experiments that might involve the provision of in-kind compensation to potential donors that could cover life-long health and disability insurance and funereal benefits. These could, in principle, be supplemented by “a pension contribution, tax credit, or charitable contribution.” Unfortunately, the letter frets so much about the downsides of improvident kidney transfers that it accepts a set of procedural limitations that doom the experiment. New experimental programs, doubtless subject to extensive internal oversight, have to meet as-yet unspecified standards on informed consent, psychological tests, and of course long wait periods before the donation can take place.
The simplest objection to this program is that it is too little and too late to dent the shortage. Any government experiment will take years first to debate and then to perform. Thereafter further delays will be incurred in trying to make sense of fragmentary data. Any pilot programs will prove yet again that justice delayed is justice denied, especially for the thousands of individuals who die in the interim.
It’s important to realize that any short-term experimental approach cuts out some indispensable benefits that only open markets can supply. The basic logic of a market is that it allows people to match up with others in order to secure gains from trade, which, as noted above, are huge for potential live kidney transplants. But kidney markets are difficult to organize because real gaps in information plague both sides of the market. After all, kidney transplants take place only once for any live kidney donor, and rarely more than twice for any kidney recipient. In one sense, these markets are even more difficult to crack than real estate markets, which exhibit a similar pattern of low-frequency and high-value transactions.
To navigate these markets, it is therefore critically necessary for third party intermediates to add their reputational bond and transactional skills to assure, as brokers, both buyers and sellers (no more donors, as it were) that the transaction will go as scheduled. And, no, there is no need for the government to supply these intermediates. The market forces that generate brokers for real estate could work here, where customers on both sides of the market enjoy full legal protections against bad performance, "