House Passes Bill to Maintain Current Organ Donation System

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - The US House of Representatives has voted 275-147 to stop the federal government from "nationalizing" the organ donation business.

The bill passed Tuesday would keep most organ-donation decision-making in the hands of a private, nonprofit group called the United Network for Organ Sharing, which works under contract to the federal government.

This runs counter to a move by the Clinton administration, which wants to make the regional system a national one.

Right now, organ "matches" are first made locally, then regionally, and finally nationally, a system that benefits states such as Wisconsin, that have strong organ-donor programs.

Health and Human Service Secretary Donna Shalala is trying to "nationalize" the system so organs go to the people who need them most, regardless of where those people live.

For people on both sides of the issue, it's a question of who should have the power to make life-or-death decisions involving a scare supply of organs and a growing number of people who need them.

Some say the federal government should not get involved in the business of deciding who gets life-saving transplants because it simply isn't equipped to make those decisions. In Tuesday's debate, Oklahoma Republican Ernest Istook said, "The federal government should not be in charge of your body when you die."

But Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, said the bill passed yesterday allows the United Network for Organ Sharing "to play God about where organs can go."

Massachusetts Democrat Joe Moakley, who had a liver transplant five years ago, joined LaHood in urging defeat of the House bill. He doesn't like the idea of a private contractor (the United Network) have so much power "without one scintilla of regulation," and he said the bill "takes the public voice out of public health."

The arguments go beyond which entity should have the power to make life-saving decisions.
There's also a question of motivation: Will Americans be less likely to donate their organs if they know those organs will be sent outside the communities where they live?

There's also a money factor, of course: Making the organ donation system national would benefit large transplant centers at the expense of smaller, local ones that thrive under a regional distribution system.

President Clinton strongly backs Shalala's plan for a national organ distribution system, and he has threatened to veto any legislation similar to what the House passed Tuesday. (See Earlier Story)