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It’s time to put patients and taxpayers ahead of transplant industry opportunists

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Should taxpayer-funded organizations for procuring organs for transplants be spending money on sports tickets and expensive junkets to wine country? The answer seems obvious — but not to some of those responsible for managing the procurement process. 

Most of the transplanted organs in the United States come from donors who have died. Their organs are secured and delivered by Organ Procurement Organizations or OPOs. There are 57 OPOs in the U.S. —  each given a regional monopoly under government contract. They are technically non-profits and receive most of their funding from Medicare, which means they are funded by you, me, and other taxpayers.

Unfortunately, no one is holding these organizations accountable. The result has been disastrous for patients and taxpayers.

In a recent hearing before my House subcommittee, we found that lives are being lost and tax money wasted because certain OPOs are misusing funds, evading oversight, and lacking efficiency. Some OPO executives are being paid more than $2 million per year — and that doesn’t count the perks. The president of the Association for Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO) admitted during our hearing that his OPO in Nevada pays for season tickets to the local NFL and NHL teams as well as lavish board retreats in California’s wine country.

This is a horrible misuse of tax money. Even worse, it is costing the lives of thousands of Americans who are waiting desperately for the organ transplants that could save them. OPOs should be spending money on hiring more staff and improving systems for identifying and recovering organs for donation, not on expensive sports tickets and exorbitant salaries for their executives.  

Aside from wasteful spending, the reckless practices of some OPOs have actually cost lives. They have been late to deliver organs, damaged others during delivery, and failed to find suitable recipients in time. In one recent case, an OPO provided a COVID-infected lung after failing to test it. The organ recipient contracted the coronavirus and subsequently died from it.  

Researchers have estimated that reforming OPOs to improve their efficiency and productivity could result in more than 28,000 additional organ transplants per year. Each one represents a life that could be saved. 

I was reminded of this when our subcommittee heard from Tonya Ingram, a young woman diagnosed with Lupus at age 22. Three years ago, Tonya learned that she was in end-stage kidney failure. She told us that the moment she received her diagnosis, “my entire world collapsed.” The night before she testified, Tonya hooked herself up to a dialysis machine for the eight hours it would take to clean her blood. She’s still waiting for an organ transplant and a second chance at life.

Unfortunately, Tonya’s story is not unique. There are more than 107,000 patients on the U.S. waiting list for an organ transplant. Hundreds of thousands more are on kidney dialysis. Yet, on average, only 37,500 organs are transplanted each year. While the waiting list becomes longer and longer, our organ transplant system remains slow and unaccountable. 

After a bipartisan appeal from members of our subcommittee, the Biden administration directed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to provide more oversight of OPOs and improve their performance through regular recertification reviews. But the industry is lobbying to delay the implementation of these new rules until 2026. The people we are trying to help, like Tonya Ingram, don’t have that much time. In fact, an average of 33 people on the transplant waiting list are dying every day.

Our message to the OPOs must be clear: we will not tolerate those who take advantage of taxpayers by procuring sports tickets and lavish trips for themselves rather than needed organs for transplant patients.  We must replace greed and self-dealing with transparency and performance. It’s time to put patients and taxpayers first, and this Congress will be watching.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, Chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. 

Tags Organ procurement Organ transplantation Raja Krishnamoorthi

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