New York State

Kidney donation bill stuck in Assembly “traffic jam”

Advocates claimed the legislation could lead to 100 more donors every year, with just a $1 million annual cost for the state.

A kidney transplant surgery.

A kidney transplant surgery. Sanford Health

This story is published in partnership with New York Focus.

A bill that passed the state Senate without a single “no” vote, that has the support of the key committee chair in the Assembly, and that seems to have no opposition still might not make it through Albany’s legislative process this year.

The bill is a key plank of a push to increase New York’s low rates of kidney donations, a topic New York Focus and City & State New York reported on in November. Every year, around 400 New Yorkers die waiting for a kidney. That’s because while over 7,300 New Yorkers need kidney transplants, fewer than 2,000 transplants occur per year.

One reason for low kidney donation rates is that donating a kidney is costly. Donors generally shoulder several thousand dollars in medical and travel expenses, lost wages during their recovery and other costs, and sometimes several times that amount, according to a 2018 study.

This month, the state Senate passed a bill that would remove those obstacles by covering the costs for anyone who chooses to donate a kidney.

Proponents claimed that the bill would lead to 100 additional kidney donations per year, deriving that estimate from the increases in donations that occurred after New Zealand passed a similar law in 2017. The reimbursements to donors would cost the state $3 million a year, they estimated. But New York would save $2 million annually through savings to the state’s Medicaid program and kidney recipients being able to return to work and pay taxes.

Kidney donation surgery generally has “minimal long-term risks” according to the Mayo Clinic.

It’s rare for the Legislature to pass bills that cost money outside of the state budget, which was approved in April. But the bill’s supporters said the potential for lives to be saved after the bill passes, combined with its relatively low cost for a state that spends over $200 billion a year, make it worth an exception to that rule.

“By passing this bill, you could save at least one hundred New Yorkers’ lives. How much is one life worth, let alone 100?” said Mike Lollo, president of the National Kidney Donation Organization, and himself a kidney donor.

But the bill is currently in limbo in the Assembly, where it has yet to be brought to a vote in the Ways and Means Committee – a hurdle it must clear before receiving a vote from the full Assembly. With the legislative session scheduled to end on June 2, it’s not clear that the bill will squeak by, even though the Ways and Means Committee Chair Helene Weinstein told the bill’s proponents that she supported it.

If it does become law, New York would be the first state in the country to reimburse kidney donors. But similar measures exist elsewhere in the world, and seem to have been effective at increasing donations. After Israel began offering kidney donors up to $10,000 and a week of paid vacation following surgery in 2010, donations increased by 64% and deaths from kidney disease decreased by 14%.

If passed, the bill “could be a model for other states,” said Josh Morrison, co-founder and executive director of Waitlist Zero, a kidney donation advocacy organization.

A more aggressive bill that would provide lifetime free health insurance to kidney donors has not been passed by a committee in either chamber. But kidney donations advocates said the bill to cover the donor’s costs could still make a significant difference.

“New York is pretty close to the bottom of the states in our rate of organ donation, which is a real shame. This is a bill that can help make this lifesaving procedure available to more people,” said Richard Gottfried, chair of the Assembly Health Committee and the bill’s sponsor.

The bill was first introduced in January 2017, but had never passed either legislative house before this year.

Weinstein’s office did not respond to an inquiry on whether she plans to bring the bill to a vote in the Ways and Means Committee. But according to Gottfried, Blake Washington, the secretary of the Ways and Means Committee, said the bill’s odds of passing out of the committee were “looking good.” Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill did not receive a vote at the committee’s Wednesday meeting, but it could still pass at one of its final meetings before the legislative session’s scheduled end on June 2.

On Monday, a group of advocates met with a member of Weinstein’s staff to push for the bill. Two of the advocates said the staffer told them that Weinstein supported the bill, but didn’t provide any promises that it would get a vote in the committee.

“They support it, but can’t give us any kind of specifics or promises that the bill will make it,” Lollo said. “We’ve heard from the people that we spoke to that unfortunately it’s one of many bills.”

Even if it passed the Ways and Means Committee, it may still fail to become law this year, for the simple reason that New York’s legislative session does not provide enough time to vote on all the bills that have majority support among legislators.

If it passes the committee, Gottfried said, “It will be part of a real traffic jam on the floor. We’ve got literally hundreds of bills that are on our agenda.”

Still, the bill’s chances on the Assembly floor would be improved by the fact that it has already passed the state Senate. “If the Assembly is deciding what to put its time into, bills that have a good shot at becoming law are always at the head,” Gottfried said.

If the bill does pass, Lollo hopes that it would enable other New Yorkers to make the same donation he did.

“I was a detective with the NYPD and we have an extremely generous sick policy. I was able to take six weeks off and get my pay. But there are people I speak to that can’t do that,” Lollo said. “There are New Yorkers out there who want to save someone’s life, but they can’t afford to.”

New York Focus is an independent investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.

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