Science and Tech


Criticism surrounding organ procurement groups continues

Some of the groups behind the nation's organ procurement process are under federal investigation for overbilling the government.
Posted at 12:05 PM, Mar 13, 2024

A new report from the Washington Post says some of the nation's organ procurement organizations, or OPOs, are under federal investigation: accused of overbilling the government. 

In an email obtained by Scripps News, The Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, or AOPO, alerted members that agents from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general's office had been dispatched to 10 OPOs as part of an inquiry. 

A spokesperson from AOPO confirmed to Scripps News that an email was sent to members but the group "does not have information on the nature of the inquiry." 

While a Department of Justice spokesperson tells Scripps News they are declining to comment at this time, a source involved in the investigation tells us a probe is underway surrounding OPOs and VA hospitals. 

OPOs are in charge of a host of things, including talking to families, procuring eligible organs from donors and getting them to transplant hospitals. 

They are reimbursed for some of their work by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

A spokesperson for AOPO pushed back against the Post's use of unnamed sources and touted 43,000 successfully procured and transplanted organs in 2023. They also say CMS rules on billing have been unclear, noting they asked the administration for a meeting and clarity earlier this year.

While there are thousands of successful deceased donor transplants annually, the OPOs have been under scrutiny from Congress in recent years.

 A 2022 Senate Finance Commitee review found, "Thousands of organs donated each year wind up discarded," with “some found abandoned in airports."

They're also accused of failing to show up to procure organs in the first place.

"It's just an unbelievable number and an unbelievable loss of donor potential and ultimately an unbelievable loss of life," Seth Karp, surgeon-in-chief at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Scripps News.  

Karp is a former transplant center director and part of a research team that has been looking into organ donation numbers from VA Medical Centers for years, and found that of the 84,155 adult deceased donors from 2010 to 2019, only 33 were recovered at VA Medical Centers.

Despite that fact, the VA is the largest integrated health care system in the country. 

"This is a group of people that is deeply, deeply committed to their country and to the well-being of their fellow citizens. And they're not being given an opportunity to donate. And that's in itself is a tragedy, right?" he stated.  

In 2026, a new measure from CMS aims to fix some of the issues, allowing for the decertification of failing OPOs that aren't meeting the minimum standards.

That AOPO spokesperson says that's a concern that could leave the nation with nearly 50% fewer OPOs.

Karp says he believes most people in the transplant world want to do the right thing and he has no ill will toward anyone, he just wants to see improvement, especially when 17 people die daily waiting for an organ.

"These families, for many of them this is the worst day of their entire lives. They've lost a loved one. And even in that pain and even in that sadness, those donors make a decision to help somebody else. I think that's extraordinary, " he reflected.