Pa. lawmakers consider changes to organ donations

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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 the changes would incorporate practices currently being used in most other states and the bill would save lives by making it less common for usable organs to be wasted.


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.


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 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.


“The voice of the DA and the investigators from Clearfield County weren’t necessarily given the attention it was due,” Freed said.


Prosecutors want better guidance on who has jurisdiction when a case involves more than one county, and they also want to address the process by which organ harvesting can be denied.


“Fairly or not, we’ve heard stories and complaints about the manner in which families are counseled about organ donation,” Freed said.


The wishes of donors are also a concern for coroners, said Susan Shanaman, attorney for the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association. She also raised questions about how and when autopsies can be ordered.


“They believe that the bill goes a little too far in terms of taking away the jurisdiction of the coroners to investigate these deaths,” Shanaman said.


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.


A similar measure is pending in the state Senate.


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