Maine’s delayed kidney donation shows disgrace of U.S. health care

By Dr. Philip Caper
Bangor (Maine) Daily News, April 16, 2015

Getting health care in the U.S. often seems first and foremost to be about money. Our first encounter when seeking health care always seems to be with the billing department, not a caregiver. The problem often is about too little money.

But the latest health care media kerfuffle in Maine is about too much money. It centers around the efforts of a local woman needing a kidney transplant to find a donor. She posted a note on her car’s window asking for somebody to volunteer. A man did volunteer and turned out to be a good match for the patient.

That was the easy part.

Because the U.S. has not created a system to routinely pay the costs of health care, including organ donation, a friend of the donor set up a crowdsourcing fund to cover some of the medical costs, lost income and other expenses he would incur, estimated to be around $6,000.

To everybody’s astonishment, donations came flooding in and soon amounted to about $50,000. Great news and a great success story.

Not so fast. The size of the fund triggered concern on the part of Maine Medical Center, where the transplant was scheduled to be performed, that the donor would be perceived to be selling his kidney. That turns out to be a violation of federal law. Accordingly, the hospital put the transplant on hold, pending resolution of the legal question.

This is just one more example of the ways in which the dysfunctional way we finance health care actually interferes with the provision of care instead of facilitating it. That is true not only for individual cases, but there is evidence the daunting prospect of unpaid bills in the U.S. is deterring potential organ donors to boot.

In many other wealthy democracies that, unlike the U.S., have well-designed health care systems, the donor’s and the recipient’s medical costs and ancillary expenses would be covered, no questions asked. No crowdsourcing, bean suppers or cookie jars in the general store are needed.

“How can they afford to do that?” we might well ask.

The answer is pretty straightforward. Instead of wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary administrative costs related solely to dealing with multiple insurance companies, they have eliminated those costs by simplifying their health care financing into a single system. Savings in the U.S. from eliminating such administrative waste are credibly estimated to reach $190 billion.

By doing that, they free up resources to devote to actual health care and other pressing public needs such as infrastructure, education and public safety. As a result, they are able to cover everybody; get better results than ours; have systems that are simpler and more popular with their public, politicians and doctors; and spend, on average, about half of what we do. If we had such a system, where money is not the dominant issue in determining whether appropriate care is provided, we could join them.

Unfortunately, the top management in many of our nation’s largest medical centers, where much of the care is provided and much of the money is spent, are well known to be hostile to a simplified, single, nonprofit payment system. Instead, they seem to be preoccupied with increasing their “market share” and boosting their bottom line rather than embracing the most efficient system for providing quality care for everybody.

I would love to be proven wrong and see more influential health care leaders advocating for such a transformation. But there is no evidence this will happen anytime soon. It seems that the barriers to reform of our health care system — apathy, fear and anger, ignorance and greed — are alive and well in our medical-industrial complex.

The fundamental problem is that we still treat health care as a privilege instead a right and spend inordinate amounts of money to make sure nobody who doesn’t “deserve” it has to grovel to get it. In the meantime, this patient’s kidneys continue to fail, her transplant continues to be on hold and the patient and donor continue to be subjected to unnecessary anxiety and delay.

This a disgrace. It’s an entirely unnecessary evil. Americans deserve better than this. We all need to push harder for more fundamental reform.

Physician Philip Caper of Brooklin is a founding board member of Maine AllCare, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group committed to making health care in Maine universal, accessible and affordable for all. He can be reached at or through his website at