Senate Committee Investigation Finds US Organ Transplant Network Failing, Endangering Lives

Senate Committee Investigation Finds US Organ Transplant Network Failing, Endangering Lives
Doctors perform a kidney transplant in this file photograph. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)
Katabella Roberts

Dozens of deaths and illnesses in the United States among individuals who either received or were in need of organ transplants were caused by a lack of oversight from the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS), according to a Senate Finance Committee investigation report released on Aug. 3.

The Senate report (pdf) examined 1,118 complaints filed from 2010 to 2020 against organ procurement organizations (OPOs) by families, transplant centers, and anonymous individuals, among others.

Those complaints detailed a string of allegations, such as OPOs failing to complete critical, mandatory tests on patients for things like blood types, disease, and infection, and some patients having to have organs removed after the transplant.

The committee found that between January 2008 and September 2015, organs and tissues from 211 donors transmitted diseases, and 249 recipients developed donor-derived diseases.

Of the 249 people who developed diseases from the donated organs they received, 70 died.

Organs Left at Airports, Never Delivered

Elsewhere, the investigation found that 53 complaints had been submitted alleging "transportation failures" when life-saving organs were being delivered, including incidents in which the courier service requested by the OPO did not arrive in time to get the organs to their flight or transplant center.

In other cases, the organs were simply never picked up or abandoned at airports, the committee said.

According to the committee, the U.S. transplant network is failing and jeopardizing the lives of Americans.

The committee's investigation found that the OPTN is failing to provide adequate oversight of the nation’s 57 OPOs, resulting in fewer available organs for transplant.

It also found that the lack of oversight by UNOS "causes avoidable failures in organ procurement and transplantation resulting in risks to patient safety," including testing procedure errors and transportation issues that resulted in life-saving organs being lost or destroyed in transit.

The committee also said that UNOS "lacks [the] technical expertise to modernize the OPTN IT system, resulting in [the] risk of system interruption or technical failure."

The network that UNOS oversees is made up of nearly 400 members, including 252 transplant centers and 57 OPOs.

"This data illustrates the lethality of diseases contracted during a transplantation and the need for exacting scrutiny of such transmissions," the committee wrote in a 60-page report.

"The Committee’s investigation shows that despite the efforts of UNOS and its internal committees, OPOs continue to experience recurring and systemic patient safety issues, including packaging and labeling errors, transportation failures, failure to identify transmissible diseases in donors, and even allegations of fraud," the report added.

'Not a Partisan Issue'

In a statement on Aug. 3, Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the investigation had uncovered failures that had cost lives.

"Thousands of organs donated each year wind up discarded, including one in four kidneys," Wyden said. "The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently issued new standards for OPO performance, and more than a third of OPOs are failing to meet them. Fixing what’s broken could substantially increase the supply of lifesaving organs available for transplant."

The lawmaker noted that the Senate's investigation remains ongoing.

"This is not a partisan subject," Wyden said. "Everybody wants this system to work with as few errors as possible."

As of July 29, there had been 24,532 transplants performed in the United States in 2022, according to official UNOS data. More than 60,000 people are listed as active waiting list candidates for an organ transplant.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), about 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant.

A UNOS spokesperson told The Epoch Times: ”We were disappointed by the Senate Committee on Finance’s misunderstanding of the role UNOS has been assigned by the government within the nation’s organ donation and transplant system.”

“We remain dedicated to addressing these misperceptions and are looking forward to working with Congress to further improve. The U.S. organ donation and transplantation system is the most successful in the world and will soon exceed one million transplants in its history. Each represents a patient whose life was transformed. UNOS is proud of the community we have helped build and look forward to continuing working together to serve all patients who rely on us.”

The Epoch Times has contacted the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network for comment.

The Senate committee began investigating alleged failures in the organ transplant system in February 2020 after four members of the committee—Grassley, Wyden, and Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.)—sent a letter to UNOS detailing their concerns about the adequacy of patient safety standards.

Inspector general audits and news reports at the time had suggested that thousands of organs that were available to patients who needed them were not being used. The reports and numerous audits also highlighted "questionable financial practices of some organ procurement organizations (OPOs)," lawmakers wrote at the time.