The federal government should require doctors and hospitals to give Americans preferential treatment over foreigners in receiving scarce organ transplants, a congressional task force was told yesterday.
"There have been abuses," said Dr. Olga Jonasson, director of the national Task Force on Organ Transplantation and chief of surgery at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. The task force, which is holding meetings around the country, is to advise Congress by January 1986 on how organ donation, procurement and distribution should be handled in the United States.
She said some U.S. doctors and medical centers have solicited some foreign patients to come here for transplants. Some surgeons and transplant centers also have made large profits by charging some foreign patients more for the operations than U.S. citizens, and she urged an end to both practices.
Recent newspaper reports by The Pittsburgh Press and The Washington Post have shown that foreign nationals have received a disproportionate number of organ transplants in those cities.
According to testimony before the panel, some hospitals distribute organs to relatives of staff members, or to wealthy individuals who donate money to the hospital, without regard to medical need.
"The foreign nationals who come to get kidneys do not represent a slice of life in their countries," said Dr. Terry Strom, an immunologist at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. "The foreign national issue would be more palatable if we weren't getting a certain strata," he said, indicating that the majority of foreign transplant patients are among the elite of their countries.
But another of the 25-member panel, Dr. Paul Russell, chief of the transplant unit of Massachusetts General Hospital, said that despite what the task force recommends, "We are quite powerless to prevent people from doing transplants . . . . there's no way to police it."
In the wake of the newspaper reports, several transplant groups recently approved policies to serve Americans first. But Dr. Robert Gordon, a transplant surgeon at Presbyterian-University of Pittsburgh Hospital, said, "This 'bottom of the barrel' policy really puts foreign nationals at extreme financial and social" risk. "If we bring patients over here, they will wait a long time under false pretenses . . . . It makes hostages out of them."
He added that news reports on abuses in his city have been "exaggerated" and he advised the panel to set up quotas to allocate 10 percent of U.S. transplants for foreign nationals yearly.
To ensure equal access to organs, others appearing before the panel suggested a lottery for organs. The task force also questioned whether a patient's age and medical condition and whether they had received earlier transplants, should be considered. Questions also were asked about giving transplants to heroin addicts and heavy smokers.
The parents of Kimberly Fuller, 9, of Elk City, Okla., who has been waiting a year for a heart and lung transplant, pleaded with the task force to encourage organ donations and to force better cooperation among hospitals and organ networks.