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Good Question: Should Organ Donors Be Paid?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There are about 3,000 Minnesotans waiting right now for a organ transplant. There are far more waiting than there are willing to donate an organ voluntarily. So, why not pay people to donate an organ?

Under the law in the U.S., it’s illegal. The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), which was passed in 1984, makes it illegal to buy and sell organs in the U.S.

The way donation is written into law under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) is as a gift – just like a gift you would make in your will.

“It is viewed as a gift, a donation, a gift from one human being to another,” said Susan Mau Larson, the public affairs director for Life Source, a nonprofit that manages organ donation in this region.

Nationally, 112,000 Americans are waiting for an organ, according to Larson, the majority of them waiting for kidney or liver transplants, which are organs that can be donated by living people.

In 2009, there were just 28,465 organ transplants, and 6,610 living people gave an organ.

“Eighteen people die each day waiting for an organ, and about 100 people are added to the waiting list,” said Larson.

The only way to legally donate is to do it for free. Some do it for a friend, relative or coworker, others like Nicki Hayes do it altruistically.

“I donated a kidney in July of 2010,” said Hayes, whose recipient, Shannon Peterson, was a complete stranger.

“He was down to a few months to live,” she said, and today, “he’s great, he’s healthy!”

Even though Hayes donated out of the goodness of her heart, she’s open to the idea of paying donors.

“It would help. It does, it saves lives,” she said.

However, Larson isn’t sure. She said that some people might be more willing to be a donor if they receive money, but many people who give this gift altruistically might be turned off if the system is monetized.

“We need to better understand why people donate, why people don’t donate,” said Mau Larson.

In the New York Times, Alexander Berger wrote a column arguing “Why Selling Kidneys Should Be Legal”

He proposed changing the 1984 law that bans paying for organs, and setting up regulations that would make sure that the distribution is fair, and not titled to benefit those with money.

“Only the government or a chosen nonprofit would be allowed to purchase the kidneys,” wrote Berger, “and they would allocate them on the basis of need rather than wealth, the same way that posthumously donated organs are currently distributed. The kidneys would be paid for by whoever covers the patient, whether that is their insurance company or Medicare. Ideally, so many donors would come forward that no patient would be left on the waiting list.”

Right now, insurance companies are paying the price for the people who are not getting a transplant. Dialysis treatment for kidney patients can cost up to $100,000 a year. Cutting a check to an organ donor for $50,000 could end up saving insurance companies and Medicare considerable money.

Iran, Singapore and Israel currently have programs where they pay for living organ donations. There have been proposals to change the U.S. law to try to set up pilot programs.

Donating cash might not be the only way, too. Some advocate giving donors choices.

“Maybe life insurance, offer living donors life insurance,” suggested Hayes.

Others have proposed offering health insurance for the life of the donor, or tax incentives.

Susan Mau Larson said this is more than just a theoretical discussion. With the number of people waiting far outpacing the number of people willing to voluntarily donate.

“I think those 112,000 people waiting want to know ‘Why am I waiting?’ Their families want to know ‘is it getting more to put donor on drivers license?’ or are there other means?” she said.

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