The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nonprofit’s plan to take over the U.S. organ network is thwarted


A government legal opinion has dashed the hopes of an upstart nonprofit organization that wants to take over operation of the nation’s organ transplant network.

Organs for Life, a new nonprofit critical of the way the transplant system is run, hoped to bid for the fiscal 2019 contract to oversee the vast and complex U.S. organ transplant system. That network includes more than 800 transplant programs and other organizations that serve them.

But the Department of Health and Human Services is requiring that any applicant demonstrate three years of experience “managing projects of similar scope and complexity in the field of organ transplantation.” Organs for Life and another would-be competitor have said they cannot meet that standard. They contend it describes only the operator of the system, the United Network for Organ Sharing.

UNOS has held the government contract to run the transplant network since the government established it in 1986. In fiscal 2018, the pact is worth $54 million. Most of the money comes from fees that people seeking transplants pay to be placed on organ waiting lists that UNOS coordinates.

This week, the Government Accountability Office, ruling on a protest by Organs for Life, said the three-year requirement set by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of HHS, is reasonable.

“The agency reasonably concluded that the nature and complexity of the work requires the contractor to demonstrate a minimum of 3 years of relevant organizational experience,” wrote the GAO’s general counsel, Thomas H. Armstrong.

An HRSA spokesman said in a statement that the agency had no comment on the decision and plans to award next year’s contract later this year. The agency solicitation includes options to renew the contract for four more years, one year at a time.

An UNOS spokeswoman also would not comment on the decision but said in an email that “running the system requires a comprehensive set of skills, resources and experiences” that include policymakers, information technology experts and health-care personnel, among others.

Representatives of Organs for Life and the other would-be competitor, based at Johns Hopkins University, could not be reached for comment.

The United States faces a severe shortage of organs for transplant, with nearly 115,000 people on waiting lists for kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs and other organs. Twenty people on those lists die each day.

People in parts of the country where it is most difficult to obtain organs have filed lawsuits, sparking major changes in the way UNOS distributes lungs and reconsideration of the way it allocates livers.

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