Pa. coroners are blocking organ donations, transplant advocates say; coroners claim 'defamation'

Penn Live | David Wenner
In this file photo, a member of a heart transplant team at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center unpacks a donated heart flown in from another part of the state. Sean Simmers (Sean Simmers)

Organ transplant advocates say Pennsylvania's failure to adopt practices used in most other states has made it the national leader in denying organ donations. Now, a debate over a bill to change that has devolved into accusations of lying, with a recent letter from the state coroners association filled with inaccuracies and distortions about an issue that can mean life or death for people waiting for organs. 

Coroners in Pennsylvania blocked organ donations 28 times since the beginning of 2014 — more than the combined total of 36 other states. New Jersey, for instance, hasn't had a denial in 20 years, according to the Gift of Life Donor Program.

The denials usually involve people who have been declared brain dead and who were registered as donors, or whose family chose to donate their organs. The denials happen when a county coroner — Pennsylvania has an elected coroner in most counties — decides a body or organs are needed for a criminal or death investigation.

The 28 denials only involve occasions when a coroner blocked donation of all organs; they don't include instances where a coroner keeps one organ but releases others for donation. With three to four organs typically coming from each donor, the 28 denials mean roughly 125 organs, including hearts, lungs and kidneys, were lost. With 8,000 people in Pennsylvania waiting for an organ, and close to 500 dying annually while waiting, every organ could mean life or death for someone, advocates say.

"You could be saying no to someone's only chance," says Richard Hasz, vice president of clinical services for Philadelphia-based Gift of Life. Continue reading
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