Monday, April 4, 2022

Transplant wait lists and patient finances

 Here's a disturbing commentary on how the regulation of transplant centers interacts with patient finances and the decision of who to put on transplant wait lists. The authors suggest extending to all organs the financial coverage that Medicare currently gives to kidney transplants.

Viewpoint March 31, 2022

Medical Need, Financial Resources, and Transplant Accessibility by Sharad I. Wadhwani, MD, MPH1; Jennifer C. Lai, MD, MBA1; Laura M. Gottlieb, MD, MPH  JAMA. Published online March 31, 2022. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.5283

"In the US, the need for lifesaving organ transplants exceeds the availability of transplantable organs, and in 2021, approximately 12 000 patients died or developed complications that precluded a transplant while awaiting an organ.1 Transplant centers are thus forced to ration these scarce resources. The first step for patients to receive an organ is for them to be placed on a national waiting list, ranked according to objective clinical criteria intended to reflect medical necessity. However, the listing system permits transplant centers to factor in patient financial resources in making this initial wait listing decision, which equates to withholding lifesaving medical therapy from those deemed to have insufficient financial resources. This approach contributes to inequities in transplant accessibility and outcomes.


"The OPTN policy specifically prohibits allocation to be based on race and ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Wait listing decisions (a prerequisite to allocation) are instead made based on a transplant candidacy evaluation, a process undertaken to assess transplant suitability. This includes an assessment of the patient’s insurance and financial security for expenses associated with the transplant surgery and lifelong posttransplant immunosuppression and enables transplant centers to circumvent the final rule mandate prohibiting allocation based on socioeconomic status. For instance, expenses for immunosuppression medications can exceed several thousand dollars a month; even insured patients can incur out-of-pocket, noncovered expenses that may exceed $1000 a month, including parking costs, missed work, and medication co-payments.2

"In theory, financial evaluations are included in listing determinations because low-socioeconomic status (measured by neighborhood socioeconomic deprivation and public insurance) has been associated with wait list mortality and posttransplant outcomes, and these outcomes are closely monitored for the approximately 250 US transplant centers.3 If transplant outcomes deviate from national benchmarks, the center risks losing accreditation and center of excellence designations, thus jeopardizing the ability of the center to offer transplants to other patients in need. The financial implications for a transplant center with poor outcomes are substantial: the average billed charges during the 30 days prior through the 180 days after a transplant range from an estimated $440 000 for a kidney transplant to an estimated $1.7 million for a heart transplant.4 Considering that in 2018, each US transplant program performed a median of 250 kidney transplants in adults, the financial implications of losing accreditation may motivate transplant centers to select transplant candidates most likely to survive until and after receiving a transplant. The system appears designed to disadvantage patients with inadequate financial resources thereby excluding them from the transplant waiting list."


"One strategy for improving insurance coverage could be to expand Medicare coverage to every individual requiring a transplant. Patients with end-stage kidney disease of all ages qualify for Medicare insurance in the US, and this coverage extends for the life of the transplant, thereby ensuring that patients continue to receive organ-preserving immunosuppression. A similar bill could extend Medicare coverage to any organ transplant recipient, starting when entered on the waiting list and continuing for the life of the transplant. This could help alleviate the potential risks that transplant centers may perceive around care adherence but would not comprehensively address all financial barriers to care. To ensure patients have adequate resources for long-term graft survival and patient health, changes to insurers’ incentives will need to be accompanied by other national, state, and local strategies to strengthen financial stability for families experiencing medical hardship.

"Solid organ transplantation is one of the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century and has transformed many terminal illnesses to treatable conditions. Yet almost 70 years after the first successful transplant surgery, this procedure remains out of reach for too many. As the nation continues to grapple with racism and classism, medicine must continue to identify and reform policies and procedures that contribute to health inequities. Withholding a transplant from those with inadequate insurance, limited financial resources, or both, is a tragic example of ongoing injustice."

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