Op-Ed California has long wait lists for liver transplants, but not for the reasons you think

LOS ANGELES TIMES | Willscott E. Naugler

The Transplant Unit at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, photographed in June. (Los Angeles Times)
About 7,000 people get a liver transplant each year in the United States, while 17,000 remain on waiting lists at transplant centers. Who should get a lifesaving transplant has always been a complex calculation. But it has blown up into a vicious political struggle that played out most recently at a meeting of the organization governing the nation’s transplant network.

The benefits of liver transplants are astounding. Patients just weeks from death can have their lives extended significantly, even indefinitely. Given the limited number of donor livers, in 2000 Congress established what’s called “the Final Rule” to guide the medical community in how to allocate them fairly. The Final Rule compels the transplant community to allocate donor organs based on best medical judgment, best use of the organs and avoidance of futile transplants. It also notes that a patient’s chance of getting a transplant should not be affected by where he or she lives.

Balancing these various guidelines has always been tricky. But what has emerged — and is now the point of contention — is a marked geographic disparity in how sick a patient must be before rising to the top of a transplant list. For example, waiting lists at California transplant centers are significantly longer (and therefore patients in California get a lot sicker before possibly receiving transplants) compared with waiting lists in Oregon. That’s unfair to the Californians who need liver transplants, right? Continue reading