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Proposed update to Pennsylvania organ donor law draws concerns

| Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

HARRISBURG — An effort to update Pennsylvania's organ donation law drew concerns at a legislative hearing Tuesday from state prosecutors and coroners who said the proposal could interfere with their responsibility to investigate deaths.

Supporters told the House Family Law Subcommittee that the changes would incorporate practices currently being used in most other states and that the bill would save lives by making it less common for usable organs to be wasted. A similar measure is pending in the state Senate.

The bill would standardize practices that can vary widely across the state, “from county to county and from election to election,” said Howard Nathan, president of the Gift of Life Donor Program, which coordinates transplants in the eastern part of the state. The Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) in O'Hara serves Western Pennsylvania.

“We've got to save more lives, because people die every year,” said Nathan, who told the panel the bill would not change the authority of law enforcement and the coroners.

David Freed, the Cumberland County district attorney and president of the state prosecutors' association, told lawmakers his group had a recent productive meeting with organ donation experts to try to address some of the concerns about how the proposed changes might affect investigations.

“We don't see this as a battle so much as an opportunity to work together to get best bill we can,” Freed said.

He described a recent case in which a Clearfield County child's organ donation status became a legal dispute after the body was sent to a hospital in Pittsburgh, and competing court orders resulted. He said that scenario was likely to occur again unless the law is changed or the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association raised questions about how the wishes of donors affect how and when autopsies can be ordered.

There are currently about 8,500 people on the state's organ transplant waiting list, the great majority waiting for kidneys. In recent years there have been about 1,300 transplants annually in Pennsylvania, while about 400 people on the waiting list die every year.

Procurement organizations across the country operate a lucrative trade in donated organs and tissues such as bones and skin, a Tribune-Review investigation reported in its 2013. The nonprofits posted an annual surplus of $929 million, paid top executives an average of $320,000 in salary and spent taxpayer money on lavish parties and retreats.

Separately, money donated by Pennsylvania drivers that was supposed to go to the families of organ donors for medical and burial expenses never has been paid out, the Trib revealed. Instead, the money has been diverted for organ donation marketing campaigns and other costs.

Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, a sponsor of the bill and the representative who led the hearing, said the major issues are making sure the donor has given his or her informed consent, jurisdiction over in deaths that involve more than one county, and the effect on criminal investigations.

“I think all of these can be appropriately worked out,” Cutler said.

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