In the News

St. Joseph News-Press
Ken Newton

Medical science has made the transplantation of human livers a huge success, with a 2016 study showing 89 percent of recipients living one year after the surgery and 75 percent surviving after five years.

The science of politics, however, has been trickier to work out.

Lawmakers in Washington fear a change made in the national liver distribution policy will adversely affect some patients on waiting lists, particularly those in largely rural states.

Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Jerry Moran of Kansas have been among the most outspoken in calling for a review of this policy.

In a hearing last week with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Blunt said small communities have higher rates of organ donations in large part because donors think these will help their neighbors.

The new policy, approved by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network/United Network for Organ Sharing board in December, deviates from a long-standing geographically based policy for distributing organs.

“I think that one of the reasons the old system worked was that people were more encouraged to be donors if they believed that people in their community would benefit from that,” said Blunt, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal health programs.

“On liver transplants under the new policy, we think there’d be 32 percent fewer transplants in Missouri.”

Lawmakers in the Kansas Legislature have even considered a bill that would allow organ donors in that state to specify that donations would not go to recipients outside the state.

Moran, who also sits on the Appropriations subcommittee with fellow Republican Blunt, questioned the process used in coming up with the new policy. It followed a lawsuit filed by transplant patients in California, New York and Massachusetts.

“This process has been flawed, and it is a flaw that arises out of the fear of a lawsuit,” the Kansas senator said. “The policy in place was changed almost overnight in response to a lawsuit.”

Azar told the senators that the top priority of the health community should be increasing the number of organ donors. He also said that Congress had acted to remove the federal government from the organ allocation issue to ensure it would not become political.

“I hope we’re doing everything we can with regard to care for individuals suffering from liver disease awaiting transplant,” the health secretary said, adding later, “When we don’t like a conclusion, I’m fairly restricted in what I can do.”

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