Ariz. Cuts Transplant Coverage; Two Patients Die

Transplant errors AP / CBS

Updated 1:05 p.m. ET

PHOENIX - A second person denied transplant coverage by Arizona under a state budget cut has died, with this death "most likely" resulting from the coverage reduction, a hospital spokeswoman said Wednesday.

University Medical Center spokeswoman Jo Marie Gellerman said the patient died Dec. 28 at another medical facility after earlier being removed from UMC's list for a liver transplant needed because of hepatitis C.

Gellerman cited medical privacy requirements in declining to release any information about the patient.

Arizona reduced Medicaid coverage for transplants on Oct. 1 under cuts included to help close a shortfall in the state budget enacted last spring.

Officials at the Tucson, Ariz., hospital said the patient's death "most likely" resulted from Arizona's scaling back coverage for transplants, she said.

It's impossible to say with 100 percent certainty whether the patient would have died anyway, Gellerman said, "but we do know that his condition has gotten more severe since he was taken off the list."

The patient's worsening condition would have elevated his place on the list, she added.

A Phoenix-area man, Mark Price, died Nov. 28 of complications from preparation for a bone-marrow transplant that was to be privately funded. That funding was provided anonymously after The Associated Press and other media outlets reported that he was notified of two possible donors on Oct. 1, the same day the coverage was reduced.

The second person's death was reported by CBS affiliate KOLD in Tucson and the Arizona Guardian.

Groups around the country have been combating the rule change to prevent needless deaths, KOLD reports.

Dr. Rainer Gruessner, chair of the University of Arizona Surgery Department, says transplant specialists have come up with a way to cut costs and save lives, making tough decisions that are fair.

"What this policy has not included is a component of fairness to the patients," Gruessner said.
Though the state never consulted Arizona doctors before making the cuts, the transplant specialists are trying to keep a dialogue open with the legislature and the health department.

"I don't want to get into any of the politics involved in it, but it backfired because now suddenly it looks as if Arizona is making decisions as to life or death of patients," Gruessner said.

He predicts that nearly 30 Arizonans will die this year because of the state's decision to cut certain transplants.

Nina Roosevelt Gibson lives near Tucson. She is the granddaughter of President Franklin Roosevelt, and has the family genetic mutation that leads to heart failure. 10 years ago Gibson got her new heart at Tucson's University Medical Center. Her daughter has the same mutation and is now waiting for a heart transplant.

"It's incredibly sad and really doesn't have to happen," Gibson said about the cut that forced her family off transplant lists.

Now she's working with the New Life Society to try to raise awareness and money for transplants.

"The long range plan is to work with Health and Human Services at the federal level to change the policies and procedures for Medicare organ recipients," Gibson said.

As for the short term, the New Life Society and transplant doctors in Arizona believe they can save money the state needs to save, and still keep people from dying.

Democrats and other critics have slammed Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and the Republican-led Legislature for the transplant coverage reduction, and incoming Senate Minority Leader David Schapira called on them to restore the approximately $1.4 million of funding.

"Failure to restore this funding is a death sentence for people who have committed no crimes," he said.

Contacted for comment on the latest death, Brewer spokeswoman Paul Senseman said the governor's office didn't have confirmation that the person was enrolled in the state Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

Brewer earlier Wednesday renewed her defense of the transplant coverage reduction but expressed a willingness to have it reviewed.

"It's something that probably needs to be discussed," Brewer said. "Eveybody is concerned about it, as I am. The bottom line is ... that was one of those areas that we could cut and we moved forward on that."

Brewer commented when asked by a reporter about a legislative committee chairman's intention to review the transplant cutbacks during a future budget hearing.

Brewer and Republican lawmakers want to drop approximately 250,000 people from AHCCCS enrollment because of the state's continuing budget troubles and the impending loss of federal stimulus funding that has propped up spending on the Medicaid program.

Arizona faces a projected $1.4 billion shortfall in its next state budget.

Brewer has said she will ask President Barack Obama's administration for a waiver permitting the enrollment reduction. The federal health care overhaul otherwise bars the enrollment reduction.
  • Ken Millstone

    Ken Millstone is an assignment editor at CBSNews.com

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