A recent social media post about one woman’s experience trying to get on the national heart transplant list has gone viral, bringing renewed attention to America’s system of dealing with organ transplants — one that, intentionally or not, prioritizes the wealthy over the poor.
According to Kaiser Health News, 60-year-old Hedda Martin was told her finances precluded her candidacy for a new heart and would need to embark on “a fundraising effort of $10,000” before her name could be added to the heart transplant list.
Martin’s case sparked outrage over a transplant system that links access to a lifesaving treatment to finances. But requiring proof of payment for organ transplants and post-operative care is common, transplant experts say.
“It happens every day,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the New York University Langone Medical Center. “You get what I call a ‘wallet biopsy.’”
Virtually all of the nation’s more than 250 transplant centers, which refer patients to a single national registry, require patients to verify how they will cover bills that can total $400,000 for a kidney transplant or $1.3 million for a heart, plus monthly costs that average $2,500 for anti-rejection drugs that must be taken for life, Caplan said.
Martin was able to raise more than $30,000 in just a few days, thanks in part to the social media exposure her story brought, and the medical facility, Spectrum Health, said she was now on the waiting list for a new heart.
Officials at Spectrum Health defended their policy, according to Kaiser, saying that financial resources, physical health and social well-being are all important factors they consider in a potential candidate.
“The ability to pay for post-transplant care and life-long immunosuppression medications is essential to increase the likelihood of a successful transplant and longevity of the transplant recipient,” officials wrote.
In the most pragmatic light, that makes sense. More than 114,000 people are waiting for organs in the U.S. and fewer than 35,000 organs were transplanted last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS. Transplant centers want to make sure donated organs aren’t wasted.
Nevertheless, the system seems unfair to many, Caplan noted.
“It may be a source of anger, because when we’re looking for organs, we don’t like to think that they go to the rich,” he said. “In reality, it’s largely true.”