AP Chronicles Thompson’s Organ Donation Fight
Following President-elect Bush's decision to nominate Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) as the new HHS secretary, the Associated Press on Jan. 3 chronicles in several major newspapers Thompson's long-standing "fight" with the agency over the nation's organ distribution policy. For years, the Wisconsin governor has fought to stop HHS' efforts to abolish geographical restrictions on organ distribution, culminating in a failed lawsuit against the department. Thompson, if confirmed by the Senate, could shift the direction of federal policy and leave HHS' current rivals "cheering." According to Mark Rosenker, a spokesperson for the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the nation's transplant network and has "resisted" HHS "pressure" to overhaul the system, "We are very, very pleased with the president's nomination -- extremely pleased." HHS backers, however, "nervously" hope that Thompson will "see things differently" after assuming his new post. "He would not have been my first choice, but that doesn't mean he cannot rise to the occasion," patient advocate Charlie Fiske said, adding, "It's one thing for the governor to advocate for the state of Wisconsin. It's another issue when the secretary of HHS has to deal with the country." Under the current system, patients waiting for transplants in the same area as donors receive organs first, regardless of whether sicker patients elsewhere in the country need organs. If no local matches exist, officials send the organs to specified regions, and then nationwide. Under the new rules, organs would go to the sickest patients first, regardless of location. Thompson spokesperson Kevin Keane said that the Wisconsin governor has no comment on the organ distribution policy issue, pending his Senate confirmation. In the past, Thompson has argued that states should work to increase donation and not attempt to "snatch" organs from Wisconsin hospitals. "If other states would just follow Wisconsin's lead, we wouldn't have to worry about divvying up the pot, we'd have enough organs to go around," Thompson said in April. HHS sparked the "intense battle" over organ transplant policy in 1998, after Secretary Donna Shalala issued controversial regulations that required the transplant network to establish new distribution policies. After a fight in Congress, the regulations took effect last year, but UNOS still has not proposed changes to the distribution rules. A Thompson-led HHS will probably not order the network to comply and may "go further," issuing new regulations or renegotiating the contract -- much to the delight of some transplant centers. "I think it would be [a] healthy thing," Dr. Ronald Ferguson, a transplant surgeon at Ohio State University, said ( AP/Baltimore Sun, 1/3).
Warning that as HHS secretary, Thompson will handle "matters of life and death," a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial calls the Wisconsin governor's record on organ distribution policy "troubling." The editorial points out that Thompson has served as a "vocal opponent" of HHS' new "sickest first" policy and instead favors a system where "desperately ill patients are kept waiting -- or die -- while organs that could be expeditiously transported go instead to 'local' recipients." With UNOS already "dragging its feet" to overhaul the organ distribution system, the Post-Gazette urges Thompson not to provide a "new excuse to go slow" on implementing the new rules. The editorial concludes, "As secretary of HHS, [Thompson] will be responsible for the well-being of patients throughout the United States. Accordingly, he should follow Secretary Shalala's lead and support 'sickest first'" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1/3).
But First, the Uninsured
In addition to tackling organ distribution policy, the Dallas Morning News argues that Thompson should provide refundable tax credits to help low- to moderate-income Americans purchase health insurance. While a tax credit could cost up to $40 billion annually, the editorial points out that a wide range of groups "embrace" such a plan and that President-elect Bush could "marry" health insurance tax credits with tax cuts to woo Democrats. The Morning News admits that the "insurance challenge ... is hardly simple" but adds that Bush and Thompson represent a "chance for progress," concluding, "The Bush administration should seize this moment as a way to expand health insurance to more Americans" (Dallas Morning News, 1/3).