Deanna Santana had assumed that people on organ transplant lists received matches. She didn’t know some died while waiting. But in May 2011, after her 17-year-old son, Scott, was killed in a car accident, she learned what a precious gift organ and tissue donation can be.
His heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas saved five people. His corneas enabled two others to see. And his bones, connective tissues and veins helped 73 individuals.
The donation’s impact had a profound effect on his mother as well. In September 2016, she agreed to donate a kidney in a paired exchange of four people making the same sacrifice for four compatible strangers.
She gave up two weeks’ worth of paid vacation to recuperate and covered lodging costs for loved ones during her transplant. Eventually, she qualified for state disability for part of her leave, but the compensation was less than her salary as public education and relations manager at Sierra Donor Services, an organ procurement organization in West Sacramento, California.
“I would estimate it cost our family about $4,000 for me to donate a kidney to a stranger,” says Santana, 51. Despite the monetary hardship, she “would do it again in a heartbeat.”
While some contend it’s exploitative to entice organ donors and their families with compensation, others maintain they should be rewarded for extending their generosity while risking complications and recovering from donation surgery. But many agree on one point: The focus should be less on paying donors and more on removing financial barriers that may discourage interested prospects from doing a good deed.
“There’s significant potential risk associated with donating a kidney, some of which we’re continuing to learn,” says transplant surgeon Matthew Cooper, a board member of the National Kidney Foundation and co-chair of its Transplant Task Force.
Although most kidneys are removed laparoscopically, reducing hospitalization and recuperation time, complications can occur. The risks include wound and urinary tract infections, pneumonia, blood clots, injury to local nerves causing decreased sensation in the hip or thigh, acute blood loss requiring transfusion and even death, Cooper says.
Meanwhile, from a financial standpoint, estimates have found it costs a kidney donor in the United States an average of $3,000 to navigate the entire transplant process, which may include time off from work, travel to and from the hospital, accommodations, food and child care expenses.
“We think that donation is a cost-neutral opportunity. It, in fact, is not,” says Cooper, who is also Director of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation at MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute in Washington, D.C.
The National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 makes it illegal to sell human organs but did not prohibit payment for the donation of human plasma, sperm and egg cells.
Unlike plasma, sperm and eggs cells—which are “renewable resources”—a kidney is irreplaceable, says John J. Friedewald, a nephrologist who is medical director of kidney transplantation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Offering some sort of incentives could lessen the overall burden on donors while benefiting many more potential recipients. “We can eliminate the people waiting on the list and dying, at least for kidneys,” Friedewald says.
On the other hand, incentives may influence an individual to the point that the donation is made purely for monetary gain. “It’s a delicate balance,” he explains, “because so much of the transplant system has been built on altruism.”
That’s where doing away with the “disincentives” comes into the equation. Compensating donors for the costs they endure would be a reasonable compromise, Friedewald says.
Depending on the state, living donors may deduct up to $10,000 from their adjusted gross income under the Organ Donation Tax Deduction Act for the year in which the transplantation occurs. “Human organ” applies to all or part of a liver, pancreas, kidney, intestine, lung or bone marrow. The subtracted modification may be claimed for only unreimbursed travel and lodging expenses and lost wages.
For some or many donors, the tax credit doesn’t go far enough in offsetting their losses, but they often take it in stride, says Chaya Lipschutz, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based matchmaker for donors and recipients, who launched the website KidneyMitzvah.com in 2009.
Seeking compensation for lost wages “is extremely rare” in her experience. “In all the years of doing this,” she recalls, “I only had two people who donated a kidney who needed to get paid for lost wages.” She finds it “pretty amazing that mostly all who contact don’t ask.”
Lipschutz, an Orthodox Jew, has walked in a donor’s shoes. In September 2005, at age 48, she donated a kidney to a stranger after coming across an ad in a weekly Jewish newspaper. The ad stated: “Please help save a Jewish life—New Jersey mother of two in dire need of kidney—Whoever saves one life from Israel it is as if they saved an entire nation.”
To make matches, Lipschutz posts in various online groups in the United States and Israel. Donors in Israel may receive “refunds” for loss of earnings, travel expenses, psychological treatment, recovery leave, and insurance. They also qualify for visits to national parks and nature reserves without entrance fees, Lipschutz says.
Kidneys can be procured from healthy living donors or patients who have undergone circulatory or brain death.
“The real dilemma arises with payment for living donation, which would favor poorer individuals to donate who would not necessarily do so,” says Dr. Cheryl L. Kunis, a New York-based nephrologist whose practice consists primarily of kidney transplant recipients. “In addition, such payment for living donation has not demonstrated to improve a donor’s socioeconomic status globally.”
Living kidney donation has the highest success rate. But organs from young and previously healthy individuals who die in accidents or from overdoses, especially in the opioid epidemic, often work just as well as kidneys from cadaveric donors who succumb to trauma, Kunis says.
In these tragic circumstances, she notes that the decision to donate is often left to an individual’s grieving family members when a living will isn’t available. A payment toward funeral expenses, for instance, could tip their decision in favor of organ donation.
A similar scenario presents when a patient with a beating heart is on the verge of dying, and the family is unsure about consenting to organ donation, says Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor in the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There has been an attempt to figure out what would constitute fair compensation,” he says, “without the appearance that people are selling their organs or their loved ones’ organs.”
The overarching concern remains the same: Compensating organ donors could lead to exploitation of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. “What’s likely to finally resolve” this bioethics debate, Moreno foresees, “is patient-compatible organs grown in pigs as the basic science of xenotransplants (between species) seems to be progressing.”
Cooper, the transplant surgeon at Georgetown, believes more potential donors would come forward if financial barriers weren’t an issue. Of the ones who end up giving a part of themselves, with or without reimbursement, “the overwhelming majority look back upon it as an extremely positive experience,” he says. After all, “they’re lifesavers. They should be celebrated.”