Wednesday, December 17, 2008

WSJ backs incentives for organ donation

I know it will not come as a surprise that the house organ for American capitalism thinks a market for buying and selling human organs would produce a better system than the one we have now (100,000 patients on waiting lists, four times as many as were on lists when the current system was enacted into law in 1984), but maybe -- this time, at least -- they're right. Today's opinion piece, "Wait-Listed to Death" (WSJ link, Yahoo! Buzz link), doesn't lay out the full argument in favor of allowing for a market to develop, but it does offer its support for a modest rewrite of the National Organ Transplant Act by Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.).

The Journal doesn't say much about Specter's bill, other than that it would retain the ban on valuable consideration being paid for organs and increase the criminal penalties for violating the prohibition (both of which contradict the Journal's call for a market), but they seem to think the bill is a step in the right direction. But Specter appears not to have introduced the bill yet, nor has he described it in remarks from the floor of the Senate or posted so much as an outline of it on his Senate web site.

A columnist at the N.Y. Sun, Diana Furchtgott-Roth,, claims to have seen the three-page bill, or a summary of it. On September 24 she wrote:

according to the bill's summary, it would "increase the supply of donated organs by clarifying the legality of both government incentives that honor the gift of life and payments associated with the screening, pretransplantation care, and follow-up care expenses incurred by living organ donors." Both states and charities would be allowed to pay these expenses.
Ms. Fuchtgott-Roth adds: "As states sort out these issues, there are a variety of ways that they could permit compensation, such as funeral expenses, payments to an IRA, tuition or tax credits, or health insurance. One potential benefit to encourage donations would be to put donors and their families at the top of the list to receive kidney donations from others, should a future need arise."

In a December 4 post on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog, John J. Pitney, Jr., writes that Specter is circulating a draft of his bill, the Organ Donor Clarification Act of 2008. If anyone has a copy, I'd love to see the "clarifying" language.

Meanwhile, Sally Satel, M.D., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a book coming out next month -- When Altruism Isn't Enough -- in which she and others make the case for economic incentives to encourage organ donation. Here's the AEI website's blurb:

America faces a desperate organ shortage. Today, more than 78,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant; only one in four will receive one this year, while twelve die each day waiting for help. Not surprisingly, many patients are riven to desperate measures to circumvent the eight-year waiting list--renting billboards, advertising in newsletters, or even purchasing an organ on the global black market. Altruism is an admirable but clearly insufficient motivation for would-be donors.

What can be done to solve the kidney crisis? Reward organ donors for their remarkable gifts. Noncash benefits to people who donate to a desperate stranger will motivate others to do the same, increase the national supply of kidneys, and reduce needless death and suffering. When Altruism Isn't Enough: The Case for Compensating Kidney Donors explores the key ethical, theoretical, and practical concerns of a government-regulated donor compensation program. It is the first book to describe how such a system could be designed to be ethically permissible, economically justifiable, and pragmatically achievable.

Altruism is a beautiful virtue, but relying on it as the sole impetus for organ donation ensures that thousands of people will continue to die each year while waiting for kidney transplants.

Sally Satel, MD, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Contributors: David C. Cronin II, MD, Julio J. Elias, Richard A. Epstein, Michele Goodwin, Benjamin E. Hippen, MD, Elbert S. Huang, MD, Arthur J. Matas, MD, David O. Meltzer, MD, Sally Satel, MD, Mary C. Simmerling, James Stacey Taylor, Nidhi Thakur, Chad Thompson.

It's already on my list for 2009. For those who can't wait that long, AEI has some of her articles on the subject posted on their website:

Finally, let's recall that last December Congress itself amended the prohibition-of-organ-sales provision in the National Organ Transplant Act (42 U.S.C. 274e) to make it clear that the law doesn't prohibit paired organ exchanges (Pub. L. No. 110-144, 121 Stat. 1813). The amendment codified the conclusion of a DOJ Memorandum Opinion that paired organ exchanges are not a form of "valuable consideration" in violation of the Act. Although, with the amendment, the point is now moot, I disagreed with DOJ on this, although I approved its conclusion on pure policy grounds. (In brief, if B, the spouse of patient A , isn't a good match with A but is a good match for patient C, and C's spouse, D, is a match for patient A, and B agrees to donate a kidney to Patient C in return for D's promise to donate a kidney to patient A, I think the exchange of promises -- and certainly the exchange of kidneys -- is valuable consideration. Not that there should be anything wrong with that . . . . )

Whatever evil Congress had in mind when it enacted the prohibition, this couldn't have been it, but it does open the door ever so slightly to at least some kinds of valuable exchanges. Based on what I've read about Sen. Specter's bill-to-be, the states ought to be able to craft their own benefit packages to create incentives without risking the commodification of the body and coercing desperate poor people into donating their organ in order to put food on the table.

posted by Tom Mayo, 9:54 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter