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Grabbing the Gift of Life

Just hours after Bob and Sandy Johnston learned a drunk driver killed their daughter, Jill, their phone started ringing — not with condolences, but with calls from a California tissue bank trying to convince the Johnstons to donate Jill's body.

"I felt I was pressured into it," said Sandy Johnston, "but I had to make a decision and I said 'Yes.'"

The Johnstons aren't alone. CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports several tissue banks are under scrutiny for improperly pressuring grieving families to hand over body parts.

In an industry that depends on the goodwill of grieving families, some fear people may not be so generous if they find out how much money some companies are making from their gift, or how they make it.

Records of another California case show a tissue bank worker said he was coached to "play on people's emotions and...make up a story that somebody's life depends on it..." in order to "increase the numbers" of donors.

Yet another tissue bank is being investigated by the Wisconsin legislature after workers sent anonymous letters charging that "Donor families are shamed and manipulated into providing consent," and that the non-profit tissue bank was run "for the sole profit" of its directors and Regeneration Technologies Inc. (RTI).

RTI is one of the fastest growing for-profit tissue companies. In just two years, the Florida-based company has created a network of tissue banks which claims to have collected more than a third of all tissue donated in the U.S. last year.

RTI's precision-tooled implants — made from donated tissue — were used in more than 60,000 surgeries last year.

"This is new. This is the right thing to do for both the donor families and the patients," said Jamie Grooms, the company's chairman and chief executive officer of the private tissue industry. "You don't want it the way it used to be. You want, as a patient, these technologies to come about."

"This has not happened in the not-for-profit model," he said.

Grooms denies families have been pressured by workers at the RTI-run tissue bank in Wisconsin.

But according to papers filed with the federal government, RTI does offer cash bonuses for keeping donor numbers high. Grooms denies that as well, saying the bonuses were for cutting costs.

"There are no bonus plans or incentive plans to increase donations," he said.

Shown his own company's documents describing cash bonuses calculated on the number of donors per financial period, Grooms said, "it's just not factual."

However, former employees of an RTI-run tissue bank, who spoke with CBS News but would not talk on camera for fear of retaliation, said the higher the body count, the bigger the bonuses they received.

Nothing RTI is doing is illegal, because the law which forbids the sale of body parts allows companies to charge "reasonable" service fees. However, the government has never defined what is "reasonable."

Thservice fees for RTI's products range from about $200 to more than $7,000.

On Friday, the FDA issued new guidelines "to help ensure that donors of human cellular and tissue-based products are free of communicable diseases, and that the cells and tissues are not contaminated during manufacturing and maintain their integrity and function," but did not address other industry practices.

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