Local liver donations could leave Indiana because of new federal policy

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Indiana Donor Network says nearly 1,300 Hoosiers are on an organ recipient waiting list. Along with other Americans, they make up nearly 114,000 people nationwide who need an organ or tissue, according to federal health officials.

Indiana has a high donor rate, and now IU Health, along with dozens of other hospitals plus patients, say they'll be punished for that because of a new federal policy.

FOX59's Beairshelle Edmé took a look ahead at a battle looming in the courtroom. She found that the rules on prioritizing who gets an organ and who doesn't could change in one week.

A new policy would directly affect patients waiting for a liver, which is the second most needed organ according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS).

"We have been one of the highest in the country of organs transplanted per donor and we will continue to so," said Sherry Quire, the network's director of organ services.

Millions of Hoosier donors often help save the life of another Hoosier, but DHHS' latest policy could mean a liver donation from Indiana, goes instead to Arizona, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania among other states.

"It would really change how everything works in the United States, not just in Indiana," Quire explained. "The fact that currently the way we do liver allocation is per a designated service area or a DSA (would be impacted)... IN Donor Network, we have most (the transplant cases) of Indiana, which means on the matching lists that are put out by UNOS, we follow that matching list."

Currently, the network looks at Hoosiers on the top of the DSA waiting list.

If the organization has gone through and doesn't find a match, then officials look for recipients further out regionally, then nationally.

The federal government's new liver transplant policy would look at the sickest patient up to 500 miles away, despite whether that patient is across state lines. It's something IU Health wants to block in court.

"Livers (are) just the next organ that are on the list (of allocation policy changes). When you look at patients waiting, you have a higher list of liver patients that are waiting. What we expect to see is that this will go on to other organs as well," Quire said.

IU Health's lawsuit, alongside other plaintiffs like Emory University Hospital, University of Kansas, University of Michigan, and several patients, claims the policy could cause death, lead to fewer liver transplants, and loss of good organs.

But those in favor of the policy say it gives everyone an equal shot, especially sick people in states where there's high demand for organs, and low donor enrollment.

“The Board carefully weighed a number of options, with the ultimate goals of best honoring the gift of organ donation and helping those in greatest need,” said Sue Dunn, the Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network board president. “This model represents a necessary step forward to address long-existing differences in transplant in various areas of the country.”

As the debate for what happens heads to a judge on Tuesday, the Indiana Donor Network says its focus hasn't changed.

"For us at the Indiana Donor Network, our mission is to save lives so what we do is follow the rules of the matching list," she said.

A judge in an Atlanta district courtroom will weigh in on whether the current temporary restraining order on the policy will remain.

If it doesn't remain, the policy could go into effect starting May 14.

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