From time to time we hear of a non-U.S. citizen getting an organ transplant at an American medical center having received the organ from the American donor pool. Is that proper? There’s more of it going on than you may suspect and transplant centers don’t talk about it much.
While I am the first to admit that my research of this topic is inadequate it still raises legitimate questions. Why do we allow non-U.S. citizens to get transplants here? Shouldn’t American organs go to Americans? Should donors be able to designate that they only want their organs to go to fellow citizens?
No one has made much of a fuss about our organs going to citizens of other countries until the Los Angeles Times investigative report in 2008 uncovered the story of four Japanese gangsters who got liver transplants at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center. That story put a burr under a lot of American Saddles but it still took the United Network For Organ Sharing (UNOS), which often moves at breakneck glacier speed, four years to decide to do something about it. Just this year they decided that transplants involving recipients who are not U.S. citizens or residents will get closer scrutiny according to American Medical news” http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2012/07/16/prse0718.htm
“Under the policy adopted by the UNOS board of directors in late June, any transplant involving a recipient who is not a U.S. citizen or resident can be reviewed by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN).
Transplant centers will have to provide data to the OPTN. That information will include a recipient’s country of origin, the reason for seeking transplantation in the U.S. and how the procedure is being financed. Data on transplantation by citizenship status will be publicly reported.
Centers will be barred from entering contracts with foreign agencies or governments to provide transplantation services. Transplant centers must abide by OPTN/UNOS rules in order to be paid by Medicare.”
I don’t know about you, readers, but this report doesn’t really tell me what a review by OPTN could result in. Like…could they deny the transplant?
Later in this post you will see more specifics but in the decade from 2000 through 2010 685 non-U.S. citizens got organ transplants here with organs coming from American donors. What is bothersome to me is that when we sign up to be donors I think we do so assuming that our organs will go to fellow citizens. That apparently is not always the case.
When you consider that about 20 U.S. Citizens die every day because there are not enough organs is it right that a rich foreigner (the great majority pay cash) can come here and take an organ that might otherwise have gone to one of us? Why is there a rule that American Transplant Centers can list foreigners but they can make up no more than 5% of any center’s list? And — is it true that some organs are given to illegal aliens? We’ll attempt to answer those questions and more in this post.
Before we more completely address these important questions it is important to frame the issue of organ allocation and transplantation in the United States. As much as we dislike the idea the fact is that we must ration human organs. The gap between available organs and those who need them is so incredibly wide someone has to decide who does and doesn’t get them.
The most burning of questions in organ transplantation is this one; Who on the waiting lists should get transplants first: patients in the greatest need or those most likely to benefit? Example. If a choice has to be made between a 72 year old man has been diagnosed as almost immediately terminal unless he gets an heart transplant and a sick but much healthier 35 year old mother of three; who should get the heart? It could be logically argued that the mother should get it because while not as sick as the man she is more likely to live much, much longer and therefore benefit the most.
As of this writing there are 116,835 candidates on the U.S. transplant waiting list. From January through October of 2012 there were only 23,363 transplants done with the organs coming from 11,659 people. It is obvious with virtually no study of the numbers that the gap between available organs and those who need them is monstrous. And…think about this. In those ten months from January through October of all the people who died in this country only 11,659 of them were acceptable donors (acceptable meaning among registered donors this number had organs healthy enough to be transplanted).
Determining who gets an available organ is not easy and the process is said to be “Blind” meaning patient conditions, age and other medical factors are known but not names or social status. It is important to understand, too, that there are over 150 transplant centers in the United States (complete list here http://tinyurl.com/78qfesx ) and each is allowed to decide which of their patients is placed on the national listing. Where there are general guidelines on who can be listed, there is no uniformity which has resulted in each transplant center developing their own criteria for adding patients to the ever growing number.
So how do you get on the transplant list anyway? Well, to start you have to have a Doctor who thinks you are sick enough to be referred to a transplant center, but there are many factors involved one of which is what bioethicist Art Caplan calls the “Wallet biopsy.” You have to prove that you can pay not only for the procedure but the follow-up care and the anti-rejection drugs you must take for the rest of your life. Those drugs can be very expensive…in excess of $1,000 a month..
Even if patients have enough money to qualify for a transplant, the transplant center must also deem them good candidates psychologically and socially and the criteria vary widely. Among the factors that transplant centers weigh as contraindications are not having a spouse or relative or close friend as a caregiver, having suffered a recent death or loss of someone close to you, having a history of criminal behavior or mental illness like schizophrenia or depression, a history of alcoholism or drug dependency, having attempted suicide, having a personality disorder and mental retardation.
With all those qualifications it is the first one, the ability to pay, that may determine your success in getting listed and then getting an organ. So when foreigners come to the U.S. with a boatload of cash it is possible that some transplant centers will make every effort to accommodate their needs including manipulating numbers so that they stay within the 5% restriction.
But…let’s look at the 5%. The number only indicates a limit on foreign transplants it does not say that 5% of all transplants go to foreigners and with the New UNOS rules the number of foreign transplants could diminish. My research on this subject revealed that from 2000 through 2010, 685 non-citizen, non-residents (aka foreign nationals) were given deceased donor kidney transplants in the US. http://livingdonorsarepeopletoo.com/kidneys-given-to-non-us-citizens-non-residents-2000-2010/
Now what about that question on illegal immigrants getting tax paid organ transplants in the U.S. Research indicates that while it has happened it is rare and in the case of a 2012 kidney transplant at Loyola University in Chicago the transplant was funded by Loyola. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-12-09/news/ct-met-illegal-immigrant-kidney-transplant-20121209_1_illegal-immigrant-kidney-transplant-liver-transplant . Now, one could argue that Loyola money is private money but at the same time the school certainly receives tax dollars for a myriad of uses so the use of tax dollars, however tangential, is certainly possible. More importantly, though, it is clear that an American donor’s organ was given to an illegal alien meaning that an American Citizen did not get it. To me…that’s just not right.
I find it disgraceful that any American citizen should be denied an organ transplant for any reason but to be denied an organ because it went to someone from another country just doesn’t seem right. I did a considerable amount of “googleing” to find a satisfactory explanation for the practice and came up empty handed. Having been on a list and knowing of the shortage scared me. Had known that someone from another country might get an American organ before I did, would have terrified and enraged me. I just don’t think its right.
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 2,500 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.
If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have another PowerPoint slide show for your use free and without permission. Just go to and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions. This is NOT a stand-alone show; it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound. If you decide to use the show I will send you a free copy of my e-book, “How to Get a Standing “O” that will help you with presentation skills. Just write to email@example.com and usually you will get a copy the same day.
Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.