Pa. considers plan to allow pay tied to organ donation

$300 could be paid to help donor's family cover funeral expenses

June 09, 1999|By NEWSDAY

For desperately ill people in need of surgical transplants, even the famed Topkapi diamond can't compare in value to human donor organs -- which, until now, have been priceless.

Today, public health officials in Pennsylvania are scheduled to approve a pilot plan that would be the first in the United States to allow payments to help families with funeral expenses each time they donate the body of a dead relative so that organs can be retrieved for lifesaving transplants.

If all goes smoothly, the $300 payments will probably begin in early 2000.

The proposal, which aims to address the dearth of donors nationwide by spurring more organ donations, is being watched closely by ethical experts nationwide and transplant officials in other states.

Critics have suggested that the Pennsylvania proposal may violate federal law, which prohibits the sale of human organs, and some medical ethicists fear it could place an unwelcome price on human life that eventually could be used to give the rich an advantage over the poor.

But Brian Broznick, executive director of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, which would help administer Pennsylvania's program if it is approved, said the criticism is unwarranted.

"Where's the ethics in letting people die?" he asked. "We can't do any harm to the deceased person. What's this taboo for the payment of families?"

Broznick -- whose group will serve as contractors for the state for the purpose of disbursing the funeral payments, along with another transplant-retrieval organization called the Gift of Life -- said he has received calls from legislators from New York, Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee and New Jersey expressing interest in the issue.

"I certainly support some reimbursement to families," said Broznick, noting that average funeral expenses run between $3,000 and $5,000. "There has been for years the issue of should we be paying people for organs. If this tests that question, then I think it's beneficial."

About 63,000 people nationwide are waiting for hearts, livers, kidneys or other organs.

Fear has long accompanied the idea of paying for organs -- fear that the poor, influenced by the need for money, would feel pressure to sell their relatives' organs primarily to the well-to-do; fear that the poor would be left out of the transplant loop; and fear that those on the edge of death might not receive life-extending care when relatives sense money on the horizon.

There are concerns that the poor might sell organs that may not be crucial to their survival -- such as one of their two kidneys -- at a time of financial stress, only to face a need for them because of disease or injury later.

There is also the issue of the crassness associated with payment schemes. Currently, transplant officials approach families cautiously -- delicately suggesting that they donate a relative's organs so others might live. There is no quid pro quo.

Proponents of the Pennsylvania plan insist that the proposed $300 payments are simply death benefits that would be paid directly to funeral homes to help defray costs, not to families. Advocates say the payments may help spur more organ donations.

State officials have proposed having Pennsylvania's two regional organ transplant networks identify possible organ donors and disburse the funeral benefits to funeral homes chosen by donor families. An advisory committee for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is expected to make recommendations today on whether to implement the proposal.

A 1994 Pennsylvania law had authorized a maximum $3,000 reimbursement for funeral or medical expenses to families of organ donors, although the current plan limits itself to the $300 funeral disbursement.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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