Florida lawmakers want to ban for-profit eye banks. These companies retrieve, store, and help deliver corneas to people who need them. The industry has long been dominated by non-profit banks, but that trend is changing.
When someone looks into a mirror, they may not notice their cornea. It's as thick as a dime and clear, like the glass cover on a watch. Eye infections can damage corneas and cause people to go blind. To see again, most patients will need a corneal transplant. According to the Eye Bank Association of America, more than 85,000 people got corneal transplants in 2018. The procedures are coordinated by eye banks. Until recently, the majority of these banks were non-profit, but in 2016 the for-profit CorneaGen opened. Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) is taking issue with its Florida branch. He worries a for-profit company might make people think twice before donating.
"If people...feel as though someone is going to make money off their donation, it could have a chilling factor on donations," Rouson says.
On a Tuesday morning at a Tallahassee DMV branch, people are renewing their registration, waiting for friends and some are getting new drivers licenses. They have the option to sign up as organ donors.
Samantha Haines is reading a book as she waits. She's a registered organ donor and surprised to hear about for-profit banks.
"I never considered organ donations as something you could make a profit off of. I thought that was illegal," Haines says.
Right now, it is illegal to buy or sell organs in the United States. However, non-profit and for-profit companies can charge fees for behind the scenes work. Everything from transporting organs to blood testing can be billed to physicians who, in turn, charge patients for that cost. Rouson is concerned for-profit banks will use extra money from fees to line people's pockets. Haines says even if that's true, she would still choose to be a donor.
"It's still going [to] a good cause," Haines says, "I would still... like to remain a donor... on the off chance that somebody who's in dire need of an organ... would get what they need."
Patricia Ford is also at the DMV. She says for-profits would affect her decision to register as a donor. She doesn't agree with the concept of charging patients for donated tissue—whether it's from a non-profit or for-profit bank:
"My southern background says that if I give someone something, there should be no charge," Ford says. "I donated it, so they're no longer mine... but that group or entity that is making the decision to give [my cornea]... it's not fair to the [patient] to charge them for a gift that I left them."
CorneaGen's CEO Monty Montoya says his company's for-profit status has disrupted the industry. He says the extra money coming in goes toward research. His company's goal is to eliminate corneal blindness by 2040. One of the technologies it's developing to do that involves growing cells from a donor's cornea, altering it, and then injecting those cells into a patient's eye.
"One cornea provides one person the chance to see again, well with this... hundreds and maybe even thousands of patients would have a chance to see from one cornea," Montoya says.
Lion's Eye Institute for Transplant and Research is a non-profit eye bank. Its CEO Jason Woody says his company uses donated eyes to study diseases.
"It could be a whole eye, which could be used for you know, for research studies such as glaucoma," Woody says.
Woody says his company studies Macular Degeneration and Diabetic Retinopathy as well. He says hospitals can choose which eye banks to partner with--Whether that's for or non-profit.