The Justice Department will be asked today to investigate a fledgling insurance plan that promises to give priority to participants for organ transplants and to donate $10,000 to participants' favorite charities if their organs are harvested when they die.
Sens. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and John Heinz (R-Pa.) said the investigation is needed to determine whether a McLean, Va., organization, the Transplant Society, is violating a 1984 law forbidding the sale of human organs. In a letter to be delivered Monday, the senators also ask the department to investigate a for-profit Denver firm, Transplant Technologies, whose investors include beer magnate Joseph Coors.
The firm is affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Transplant Bank, which since June has been paying Denver General Hospital $600 in paper work fees for each organ donation it handles, according to corporate statements and contracts filed with the state and city governments and reported in the Rocky Mountain News.
"It was never our intent to allow for any one or group of individuals to profit from the organ or tissue trade," Gore said. "People and parts of people are not a commodity and should not . . . be treated as such."
Lipman Redman, an attorney for William von Meister, founder of the Transplant Foundation and its for-profit insurance subsidiary, the Transplant Society, said, "We really don't have much doubt the sale of human organs was never meant to cover a situation like ours. Nobody profits but the charity."
Von Meister, the inventor of electronic mail and The Source, a computer information bank, said his goal is to increase organ donations, not profit. "I've been very successful in the past and everyone likes to think about doing something humanitarian once in a while," he said.
To speed recognition and financial contributions to the Transplant Foundation, he said he chose well-known trustees, such as Robert Gray, chairman of the Gray & Co. public relations firm, Redskins football player Art Monk and Dr. G. Baird Helfrich, director of kidney transplants for Georgetown University Hospital. All the board members have contributed to the foundation, which will cost $250,000 to $500,000 a year to run, he said.
Von Meister said he intends to send letters to 1,300 corporate executives next month, asking that they enroll their employes in the foundation's computer network as potential organ donors. Solicitations to individuals throughout the nation would follow in January, he said.
The society would seek a "contribution" of $15 per person and would provide an accidental death policy and allow members to designate a charity to receive a $10,000 payment should the member die and his organs be harvested successfully.
The foundation's proposal, which von Meister said is only a draft, promises that members and their families would become "priority recipients" of organs donated through the society.
But the ethics codes of several transplant societies say that medical necessity is the only way organ recipients should be selected.
"The distribution and assignment of organs must be made by medical criteria and cannot be influenced by any other considerations; political, special payment or favoritism," said Dr. Oscar Salvatierra president of the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nationwide computer network for the country's 115 organ-procurement agencies.
Dr. Alfred Luessenhop, chief of neurological surgery at Georgetown University Hospital and a foundation board member, said he read the draft "eight to 10 months ago" but is unaware of the foundation's workings. "I'm just a lifelong friend of Bill von Meister," he said.
Luessenhop added, "Dr. Helfrich is the one who has worked on this."
Helfrich did not return several telephone calls. In an interview with The Pittsburgh Press, he denied active involvement with the foundation, saying von Meister was "off track" with his project and "just practicing the good old American business of making money."
Monk could not be reached. Jim Jennings, an aide to Robert Gray, said Gray "lent his name" to the foundation because he thought it was a worthy cause and "Bill von Meister used to be a client of ours."
Von Meister said the foundation's donor registry could help obtain organs from many of the 25,000 potential donors who die each year.
But several executives in transplant networks said a donor registry would not speed organ removal. Despite prior approval, such as wallet cards or wills, doctors require permission from the next-of-kin before organs are removed, said Gene Pierce, director of the United Network for Organ Sharing in Richmond, Va.
The need for more organs prompted two Denver dentists to establish Transplant Technologies Ltd., which plans to set up and manage organ banks. Its board includes several founders of the Rocky Mountain Transplant Bank.
The cost of kidney harvesting is paid for and audited by the federal government under Medicare, but not the removal of other organs.
Salvatierra said the failure of the Department of Health and Human Services to approve regulations under the year-old National Organ Transplantation Act has hurt efforts by the transplant community to settle questions regarding organ solicitations and distribution.
Dr. Les Burrows, president of Transplant Technologies, could not be reached.