This story was co-published with Fox 8 WVUE New Orleans.
Earlier this fall, a leader of the busiest hospital for organ transplants in New York state — where livers are particularly scarce — pleaded for fairer treatment for ailing New Yorkers.
“Patients in equal need of a liver transplant should not have to wait and suffer differently because of the U.S. state where they reside,” wrote Dr. Herbert Pardes, former chief executive and now executive vice president of the board at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
But Pardes left out his hospital’s own contribution to the shortage: From 2013 to 2016, it gave 20 livers to foreign nationals who came to the United States solely for a transplant — essentially exporting the organs and removing them from the pool available to New Yorkers.
That represented 5.2 percent of the hospital’s liver transplants during that time, one of the highest ratios in the country.
Little known to the public, or to sick patients and their families, organs donated domestically are sometimes given to patients flying in from other countries, who often pay a premium. Some hospitals even seek out foreign patients in need of a transplant. A Saudi Arabian company, Ansaq Medical Co., whose stated aim is to “facilitate the procedures and mechanisms of ‘medical tourism,’” said it signed an agreement with Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans in 2015.
The practice is legal, and foreign nationals must wait their turn for an organ in the same way as domestic patients. Transplant centers justify it on medical and humanitarian grounds. But at a time when President Donald Trump is espousing an “America First” policy and seeking to ban visitors and refugees from certain countries, allocating domestic organs to foreigners may run counter to the national mood.
Even beyond the realm of health care, some are questioning whether foreigners should be able to access limited spots that might otherwise be available to U.S. citizens. For instance, public colleges compensate for reductions in state funding by accepting more foreign students paying higher tuition, and critics say in-state students are being denied opportunities as a result.
Dr. Sander Florman, director of the transplant institute at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said he struggles with “in essence, selling the organs we do have to foreign nationals with bushels of money.”
Mount Sinai has not performed any transplants on patients who came to this country specifically for that purpose, but it has done so for international patients here for other reasons.
Between 2013 and 2016, 252 foreigners came to the U.S. purely to receive livers at American hospitals. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the majority of foreign recipients were from countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel and United Arab Emirates. Another 100 foreigners staying in the U.S. as non-residents also received livers.
All the while, more than 14,000 people, nearly all of them American citizens, are waiting for liver transplants, a figure that has remained stubbornly high for decades. By comparison, fewer than 8,000 liver transplants were performed last year in the United States — and that was an all-time high. The national median wait time for a liver is more than 14 months, and in states like New York, the wait is far longer. (The wait for livers varies from one state to the next, depending on such factors as the number of organ donors, and the resourcefulness of organ procurement agencies.)
Many patients die before reaching the front of the line. In 2016, more than 2,600 patients were removed from waiting lists nationally because they either died or were too sick to receive a liver transplant.
Most transplant centers only serve American citizens or residents, either by happenstance or by design. Foreign transplants are concentrated among a handful of centers, including NewYork-Presbyterian, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston (31 such transplants from 2013 to 2016), Ochsner (30), and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio (21).
“When you take people from other parts of the world and provide an organ transplant to them rather than someone who’s here, there’s a real cost, there’s a real life that’s lost,” said Jane Hartsock, a visiting assistant professor of medical humanities and health studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. Hartsock and her colleagues wrote a journal article published last year saying foreigners should be last in line for a transplant.
NewYork-Presbyterian said it does not advertise its transplant program to foreign patients and that the majority of the transplants it performed on foreign nationals traveling to New York for that reason — 11 of the 20 — were on children under 18.
In a statement, the hospital and its academic partner Columbia University said they follow federal guidelines. “We strongly support efforts that aim to address the critical issue of equitable distribution of livers for transplant and are working closely with a wide range of stakeholders to help increase the number of organ donor registrations in New York State.”
A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Clinic, Eileen Sheil, said her hospital does not actively seek out foreign national business and has a “thoughtful and ethical approach that is well within the rules and aligned with our overall mission for taking care of patients.” Ochsner similarly said, “patients seek out Ochsner’s expertise because of our relentless commitment to provide the highest-quality, complex care.” Memorial Hermann did not respond to requests for comment.
To be sure, the proportion of available livers that go to foreigners is tiny — slightly less than 1 percent of liver transplants nationwide from 2013 to 16. The figure appears to be dropping further in 2017. Even if all recipients were Americans, wait times would still be substantial. Moreover, foreigners queue up on the waitlist like everybody else — although it may be easier for them, since they aren’t rooted in any particular state, to choose a hospital in an area with a shorter wait, such as Ochsner. And some Americans discouraged by the lengthy wait in this country have gone abroad for transplants.
The transplant figures in this article do not include transplants involving living donors, meaning a relative or friend who donates part of his or her liver to a patient. No one interviewed for this story said it is inappropriate for a foreign national to come to the U.S. for a procedure with a living donor.
There’s also an important distinction between giving an organ to a foreigner who happens to be in the U.S. — someone on a student visa or even an undocumented immigrant — and giving one to someone flying over just for surgery. Someone in the first group would be eligible to donate an organ if something happened to them in this country; someone in the latter group would not because livers must be transplanted quickly and there wouldn’t be enough time to ship them.
“If you live in the United States, no matter what your [citizenship] status is, you could potentially be an organ donor if you get hit by a car or something happens to you,” said Dr. Gabriel M. Danovitch, medical director of the kidney and pancreas transplant program at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who previously led the UNOS international relations committee. “But if your home is somewhere else, a long way away, there’s no way that you can be a donor or your family or your friends could be donors.
“And in some respects, when you then come to the United States, you are using up a valuable resource that is in great shortage here.”
Foreign patients generally are not entitled to the same discounts as those with private insurance or Medicare, the federal insurance program for seniors and the disabled. In 2015, for instance, the average sticker price for a liver transplant at NewYork-Presbyterian was $371,203, but the average payment for patients in Medicare was less than one-third of that, $112,469, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare. In the case of Saudi Arabia, its embassy in Washington often guarantees payment for patients.
The topic is emerging now because the nation’s transplant leaders will meet next month to consider rewriting the rules governing how livers are distributed, giving programs in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other areas greater access to organs from people who die in nearby regions. The proposal by a committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the federal contractor that runs the national transplant system, faces opposition from programs and regions that stand to lose organs. Pardes’ comments were posted in an online comment forum devoted to the proposal, which does not address the issue of transplants for foreigners.
UNOS said it has worked to get better data on foreigners that receive transplants in this country but ultimately, federal law doesn’t prohibit these transplants.
“This is an individual medical decision that the individual transplant hospital makes,” spokesman Joel Newman said. “If we addressed citizenship or residency as a particular reason for whether to accept a patient or not, then that would open up the door to lots of other nonmedical criteria — religion, race, political preference, any number of things that as a community we have decided from an ethical standpoint not to consider.”
UNOS has the authority to ask questions of transplant centers about surgeries on foreign nationals, but Newman said UNOS committees are still trying to figure out what information they would want, and, in any event, the transplant centers don’t have to answer the questions.
The federal rules governing the transplant system, written more than three decades ago, say organ allocation decisions must be based on medical criteria, which would exclude consideration of a person’s nationality or citizenship. While centers can perform as many transplants on foreigners as they want, many programs have tried to keep them below 5 percent of all transplants for each organ type. Until several years ago, 5 percent was the threshold above which UNOS could audit a program. No programs were ever formally audited, and the cutoff was eventually eliminated.
It’s time to revisit the rules, some lawmakers say.
“As a general rule, you’ve got to take care of Americans first as long as you have more demand than supply,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., whose state is home to Ochsner, a leader in transplants for foreign nationals. Kennedy said he would favor curbing transplants for foreigners, while creating a national board that could make exceptions. “But what you don’t want to get into, it seems to me, is subjective areas like well, ‘If this person could live an extra few years, what could they contribute to society?’”
There have been scandals in the past about foreigners and organ transplants. In 2005, a liver transplant center in Los Angeles shut its doors after disclosing that its team had taken a liver that should have gone to a patient at another hospital and instead had implanted it in a Saudi national. The hospital said its staff members falsified documents to cover up the incident.
The University of California, Los Angeles, came under fire in 2008 for performing liver transplants on a powerful Japanese gang boss and other men linked to Japanese gangs, and then receiving donations afterward from at least two of the men. The hospital and its surgeon said they do not make moral judgments about patients.
Further complicating matters is a 2008 document endorsed by transplant organizations around the world, called the Declaration of Istanbul, which seeks to eliminate organ trafficking and reduce transplant tourism internationally. One concern was that patients went to China and received transplants using organs from prisoners. (China said it was stopping the practice in 2015, but experts question whether that has happened.) Another concern was that if a country’s wealthiest or most powerful residents could get transplants overseas, its leaders may not have an incentive to set up a system of their own.
The non-binding declaration also says that there should be a ban on “soliciting, or brokering for the purpose of transplant commercialism, organ trafficking, or transplant tourism.” It was endorsed by UNOS and other national transplant groups.
Former Ochsner employees say they recall Saudi nationals coming for transplants, some wealthy and some not. A New Orleans bar posted a photo on Facebook in 2015 of a young man who brought his mom from Saudi Arabia for a transplant.
Ochsner said in a statement that it was proud of its liver transplant program, which is the nation’s largest. It said that it is willing to accept donated organs that other centers turn down for medical reasons, expanding its ability to help patients while keeping its survival rate high. And it noted that the median waiting time for its patients is only 2.1 months, far below the national median.
“UNOS does not have any restrictions preventing transplant for international patients and they are subject to the same guidelines as domestic patients,” the statement said.
Still, many American candidates for livers don’t make Ochsner’s waiting list. It refused to put Brian “Bubba” Greenlee Jr. on its list right after Christmas in 2015, because of his “poor insight into his drinking and lack of proper social support,” his medical records show. He had cirrhosis and died weeks later at age 45.
His sister, Theresa Greenlee-Jeffers, said Ochsner led her brother to believe that he would get a new liver. Her brother had stopped drinking and she had volunteered to take care of him after a transplant, but then the hospital suddenly reversed course.
“His last Christmas, he was given false hope that he was going to get a transplant. That’s not OK. You don’t play with somebody’s emotions like that,” Greenlee-Jeffers said.
Ocshner did not answer questions about Greenlee’s care but said in its statement, “Not every patient is a candidate for transplant.” It said its criteria are similar to those of other liver transplant centers.
“At Ochsner, we are caregivers, dedicated to providing our patients with high-quality care, improved outcomes and the gift of a second chance at life,” its statement said.
Greenlee-Jeffers wonders if Ochsner excluded her brother and other Americans to make room for foreigners willing to pay more. “It’s not OK,” she said. “We need to take care of our people here at home first. We don’t have enough of this to go around.”