Gift of Life Michigan welcomes federal attempt at improving organ transplant system

The Biden administration said Wednesday it will attempt to break up the network that runs the nation's organ transplant system as part of a broader modernization effort.
More people than ever are getting new organs, with a record 42,888 transplants last year - but that's not nearly enough to meet the demand. More than 100,000 patients are on the national transplant list, thousands die waiting and critics have long urged an overhaul to save more lives.

The United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, is a nonprofit organization that has run the transplant system, under a government contract, for nearly four decades. That includes overseeing the groups that retrieve organs, helping set policies for how organs are distributed and patients are prioritized – and running the massive computer system that matches organs with patients.

Now the government aims to end that monopoly and divide those duties among more than one group. Exactly how that will work isn't clear. The Health Resources and Services Administration will issue bids for new contracts in the fall but wouldn't say how many.

Dorrie Dils, the CEO from Gift of Life Michigan, said she was encouraged by the decision.

"The way we match the organs that are available to those who are waiting is somewhat antiquated and it needs to be updated," she said. " I welcome the opportunity for new eyes to look at it, perhaps introducing things like artificial intelligence and new technologies that will help us get that organ, to the right recipient, quicker. And then I think organ transplants will go up."

The call for change also comes after a report last year revealed minority groups do not ave fair access to transplant waiting lists. It also revealed that one in five kidneys from deceased donors aren’t used.

" think that everyone in our field has to agree that having people die waiting on the list or having their names removed from the list because they became too sick for a transplant, is unacceptable," Dils said.

Gift of Life Michigan works to connect people who need vital organ and tissue transplants with donors.

"We want to make sure first and foremost that while we’re going through this transition that patients who are waiting for transplants will be provided that opportunity," Dils said. "That whatever transition we are going to make, that patients are not harmed in the process.

Also Wednesday, HRSA took initial steps to translate some of the government's data on organ donation and transplantation into an easier-to-understand  website for patients and families, data that can help them decide how to pursue care.

The Biden administration also has requested that Congress more than double HRSA's funding for transplant oversight, to $67 million next year.

Wednesday's announcement doesn't directly address some tougher problems, such as that potentially usable organs too often aren't retrieved from would-be donors –- and that hospitals often decline to use less-than-perfect organs that could help the right patient. An influential science panel last year urged the government to set performance goals addressing those and other challenges.

UNOS announced its own set of planned improvements to the transplant system in January and in a statement Wednesday, said it was committed to working with the government.

"We believe we have the experience and expertise required to best serve the nation's patients and to help implement HRSA's proposed initiatives," the nonprofit said in a statement.
Asked by senators Wednesday about complaints against UNOS, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra pledged that "we're going to require transparency. ... They can't hide behind confidentiality and say, ‘We can't show you what's gone on.'"

Gift of Life Michigan needs more donors, Dils said, particularly from minority groups where donations are currently low. 

To learn more about Gift of Life, click here.

The Associated Press contributed to this story