The Defense Department is about to begin a program to encourage current and retired military personnel and their families to become organ donors, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said yesterday.
Levin said that under the new policy, military hospitals would keep computerized records of donors and would be able to match them with lists of patients waiting for transplants.
The senator said it could not be projected how many organs could become available under the program. But he said that 7,500 people died in military hospitals in 1984, the most recent year for which figures are available.
"With each coming year, this new policy could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans," Levin said.
The policy would apply to active-duty personnel, retired servicemen and -women, and their families -- a total of 9 million people.
It would not apply to veterans who served only brief military stints.
Under the program, eligible people would be asked to carry organ-donor cards.
Hospital officials would ask families of patients who die and were covered by the program if they would approve an organ donation. By rejecting the request, survivors could withhold the organs even if a card had been signed.
If the military's two transplant centers -- Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and the Wilford Hall Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio -- could not use the organs, they would be made available to local civilian hospitals.
More than 11,000 Americans received heart, kidney, lung, liver or pancreas transplants last year, and 10,000 others are on waiting lists, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The military performs about 100 transplants per year, all involving kidneys, for which the procedure is simpler than for other organs.
For more than a year, Levin, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has urged the Defense Department to create a program for organ donations.
A Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, said the department had been working on the idea before Levin suggested it.
The official said Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is likely to approve the plan in the next few days.