Hospitals are Throwing Out Organs & Denying Transplants to Meet Federal Standards
From: STAT – 8/11/16
Hospitals across the United States are throwing away less-than-perfect organs and denying the sickest people lifesaving transplants out of fear that poor surgical outcomes will result in a federal crackdown.
As a result, thousands of patients are losing the chance at surgeries that could significantly prolong their lives, and the altruism of organ donation is being wasted.
“It’s gut-wrenching and mind-boggling,” said Dr. Adel Bozorgzadeh, a transplant surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass.
He coauthored a recent study that showed a sharp uptick in the number of people dropped from organ transplant waiting lists since the federal government set transplant standards in 2007. These standards are tied to federal hospital ratings and Medicare funding, which is the main payer for transplants and a key source of income for hospitals. And hospitals’ ability to meet those standards helps determine their reputation within the medical community. Surgeries involving imperfect organs and extremely ill patients are more risky, so hospitals that do many of them run the risk of poor outcomes that may hurt their performance on the standards.
Soon after the study was published in April, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services changed its benchmarks to give hospitals — and surgeries — more leeway to fail. But patients and doctors are still uneasy about the erosion of one of transplantation’s fundamental principles: the sicker you are, the higher you move up the waiting list for donated organs.
“This has been a nightmare, a very expensive nightmare,” said Kathy Barnes, whose husband, James, has been denied a liver transplant by three hospitals, but who is on the waiting list at UMass Memorial.
“Why won’t they do it?” she asked. “It seems like some of them are just looking for an excuse to say no, and I don’t understand that.”
The study by Bozorgzadeh, published by the American College of Surgeons, found that the increasing reluctance to perform transplants on the sickest patients is directly tied to the onset of the standards enforced by CMS.In the first five years after adoption of the standards, more than 4,300 transplant candidates were removed from waiting lists by hospitals.That’s up 86 percent from the 2,311 patients delisted in the five years prior to the regulation.
Bozorgzadeh said the federal regulations are turning transplantation into a numbers game that makes it harder to help patients who deserve a fighting chance.
“If you have young guy who has a 100 percent chance of dying, but only a 30 percent chance of dying with a transplant, you would say, ‘What the hell, give the guy a chance,’” even if the operation might be risky, he said. “But if I make an argument like that, I will be under pressure from all these other stakeholders who would penalize me.”
The number of organs being tossed out has also increased because of concerns that their imperfections could lead to bad outcomes. Last year, 3,159 donated kidneys were discarded, up 20 percent from 2007, according to federal data.
“To me, it just doesn’t make any sense,” said Howard Nathan, chief executive of a Gift of Life Donor Program based in Philadelphia. “We have hundreds of thousands of people on dialysis. And you have these kidneys available that would work … but transplant centers are afraid to use them because they might pull their results down.”
The trend also has a financial impact — not just on the patients, but on American taxpayers.
As federal regulators have noted, it costs the Medicare program more in the long run to keep patients with ailing kidneys on dialysis than to give them organ transplants. Transplant patients also tend to live longer and have a better quality of life.