State Journal-Register

April 18, 2001

Thompson wonít block new rules on organ donation 


WASHINGTON ó As Wisconsin governor, Tommy Thompson aggressively fought efforts by Illinois and other states with large transplant centers to change the way organs are distributed for

But Thompson, who now heads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday he has no plans to block federal rules issued under the Clinton administration aimed at broader sharing of organs beyond geographical boundaries.

Instead, Thompson said he wants to resolve the regional conflicts over scarce organs by encouraging more people to donate them.

"I donít want to get into a fight over distribution or allocation. Itís very contentious," he told a National Press Club audience. "Letís work together. Letís solve the problem so everyone has a chance ..."

Nationwide, there were 22,827 organ transplants last year. But more than 75,000 Americans still are waiting for organs to become available. Almost 5,500 people die waiting each year.

In Illinois, 4,550 patients are waiting for organ transplants.

With Thompson at the helm, Wisconsin last year filed suit against the federal government to try to block the new rules. The case was thrown out of federal court.

The debate pitted Illinois, which has nine transplant centers with long waiting lists of patients, against Wisconsin and other "donor" states that have a surplus of organs. Wisconsin didnít want its organs going to major transplant centers in Chicago.

"As governor of Wisconsin, I didnít like organs being taken from Wisconsin and transported to another state. I felt we were doing a very good job (in promoting organ donations), and I wanted other states to follow Wisconsinís lead," he said.

As HHS secretary, however, he has a different perspective.

"I have to look at the nation as a whole and try to find ways in which we can increase donors," Thompson said. "Iím not changing the rules ...

"Why canít we solve the problem instead of creating more angst?"

After a fight in Congress, the regulations took effect this year. But the transplant network under contract to HHS has yet to write the new distribution policies.

Those on both sides of last yearís debate said theyíre relieved that itís over and pleased with Thompsonís focus on organ donation.

"Nobody wants to have to go into a divisive issue, certainly not one that pits transplant programs against each other and thereby the patients," said Carol Linett, director of transplant services at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

St. Francis was part of a coalition of transplant centers from across the country that had lobbied in favor of the new rules breaking down regional barriers.

Illinois lawmakers also battled to retain the rules.

"The allocation of scarce organs should be based on need, not accidents of geography," Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., said. "Secretary Thompsonís decision could help patients who otherwise might not have a chance simply because of where they live."