More than 60,000 people await organ transplants in the United States today, triple the number ten years ago. The donor list, unfortunately, hasn't grown so rapidly: In 1998, the number of cadaveric donors reached 5,788, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). That's a 5.6 percent increase from 1997, the first substantial rise since 1995, but not nearly enough to pull many extra patients off the waiting list. Pennsylvania thinks it might have a solution: Pay people. In a pilot program starting next January, the state will give up to $300 to an organ donor's family to help cover funeral expenses. To abide by federal law, the money will go directly to the funeral home handling arrangements for the family.
Who's likely to donate? Men outnumbered women in 1998, 58 percent to 42 percent, and whites made up roughly 76 percent of the donor pool. Adults 18 to 49 represented the largest segment by age, although the number of donors 60 and over posted the greatest percentage increase-10.7 percent -from 1997 to 1998.
According to UNOS data, more Midwesterners became donors than people anywhere else. The region encompassing Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio saw its donor files increase 13 percent; another district stretching from Missouri to Wyoming boosted its numbers by more than 11 percent. The region covering New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. posted only a 1.3 percent rise, from 675 to 684 donors. It's also home to nearly 11,000 patients waiting for transplants, 16 percent of the total figure.
One reason for the overall rise in donors is a federal mandate, installed last year, that requires all hospitals participating in Medicare to routinely inform their local donor program of all hospital deaths. A representative from the program can then contact the family to request a donation. Prior to this requirement, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 potential donors were missed annually. Pennsylvania, which implemented the "routine referral" program four years ago, has already seen a big difference. At the Philadelphia-based Delaware Valley Transplant Program, which also serves southern New Jersey and Delaware, the number of organ donors has jumped 43 percent since the law went into effect.
The momentum continues: Its rolls are up another 30 percent already this year.