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A bipartisan revamp of the US organ transplant system awaits Biden’s signature


Congress has approved legislation that would allow HHS to expand competition for contracts related to the network that matches donor organs with patients waiting for transplants.

The Senate on Thursday passed bipartisan legislation to reform the U.S. transplant system and improve access to organ donations. The bill previously passed the House and is headed to President Joe Biden to sign.

The measure would give the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to expand competition for contracts related to the operation of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), which matches donor organs with patients waiting for transplants.

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.

However, there have been concerns about UNOS oversight. Critics have blasted the system for policies and outright mistakes that waste organs and cost lives.

A Senate Finance Committee investigation turned up problems including testing failures that between 2008 and 2015 led to 249 transplant recipients developing diseases from donated organs, 70 of whom died. In other cases, organs being shipped from one hospital to another were lost in transit or delayed so long they weren’t usable.

The legislation ends that monopoly and divides UNOS’ duties among more than one group. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration can now issue bids from multiple public vendors, including for-profit organizations.

The bill “is another step towards improving the OPTN so more patients can access transplants safely and efficiently,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in a statement. “As 17 people die each day under the current system; Congress will not accept mismanagement when lives are at stake.”

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.

“At long last, Congress has succeeded in untangling years of deadly errors in the organ industry to give patients a better shot at lifesaving care and root out corruption,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. “Americans in need of organ donations, especially rural residents and people of color, will be greatly benefited by these changes.”

Information from the Associated Press and KFF Health News was used in this report.

I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.