ALBANY, N.Y. – Far fewer New Yorkers have signed up as organ donors than Americans as a whole, prompting the state to seek help boosting enrollment and shortening its list of patients who die waiting.
A study from Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield showed 22 percent of New York adults in the donor registry, compared with 48 percent nationally.
The study also said 539 New Yorkers died awaiting a transplant last year while others became too sick and ineligible.
“There are too many New Yorkers losing their lives when they could and should be saved,” said Aisha Taylor, executive director of the nonprofit New York Alliance for Donation.
Currently, 8,667 people are on New York’s list for a kidney and 1,352 for a liver. Almost 1,500 of them have been waiting more than five years. Others need a pancreas, heart, lung or intestine.
One reason cited for New York’s relatively low rate is leaving registration in the hands of the state. Eight of 10 states with the highest sign-up rates, ranging up to 84 percent, have nonprofits running their registries, according to donation advocates.
New Yorkers can sign up when they renew their driver’s licenses or register to vote, or at other times through the Department of Motor Vehicles online. The state Health Department is drafting a bid request for outside help to increase registration.
So far, 2.5 million adults statewide have given legal consent to donate their organs when they die, which was authorized under state law in 2008. Another 950,000 indicated their intent to do so after the database was first established a decade earlier, though still needed for those would-be donors would be the consent of their health care proxies, legal guardians or heirs.
Advocates want that group to re-register to give their legal consent, as well as people who may have simply signed their driver’s licenses without entering the information by computer into the actual registry. They say that would both clarify a would-be donor’s intent and takes pressure off the family in what can be an emotionally wrought situation.
“It is a legal consent, just as if you signed a paper in front of two witnesses,” said Dr. Frank Dubeck, vice president and medical director at Excellus, the nonprofit health insurer based in Rochester. He believes many more organs are transplanted as a result of registrations than if medical personnel simply approach families in the hospital after someone has died. Unless a registered donor has placed particular restrictions, any of their viable organs or tissue can be recovered for transplants, he said.
Donation is limited to those who are medically eligible, who don’t die of diseases like metastatic cancer that would make their organs unusable for someone else.
The New York State Organ Procurement Organizations last year reported recoveries from 352 organ donors in New York, including 76 who were on the state registry. Several organs can be taken from one donor.
New York has 17 hospitals that have collectively done 38,361 transplant surgeries from 1988 through April of this year in New York City, Long Island, Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Westchester County. They did 1,670 last year, fewer than in the previous eight years, and 572 in the first four months of 2014, according to the federal Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Virtually any hospital can recover organs from deceased donors, with transplantation organizations sending in teams to do it.
They are distributed to patients on the transplant list based on scores that include medical urgency and geography, meaning the time it takes to deliver them. “We do try to match organs locally first if we can,” said Joel Newman, spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing. The nonprofit manages the nation’s organ transplant system under a federal contract.