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Giving friend a kidney costly affair for organ donors

BIRMINGHAM — John Wayne Bennett couldn’t spring for as many Christmas presents for his kids this year because he had already given a generous — and costly — gift.

Bennett, 44, donated a kidney to a good friend at UAB Hospital in November. Physically, he has recovered from the experience, but travel expenses and missing five weeks of work left the carpenter in a financial hole.

“It took the money out of Christmas,” said Bennett, a single father of two teenage girls. “My kids understand it. I understand it. And there’s always next Christmas. To save a life, there’s no price on that.”

There can be a cost, though. Organ donors spend money on travel, sometimes don’t have insurance to cover unexpected follow-up care and miss weeks of work.

“It takes your money-making ability away from you,” said John Phipps, 34. The married father of two donated a kidney last week to a friend at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“We just knew the Lord was going to take care of us. That’s pretty much what we’re banking on,” he said.

Burden for others

They’re not alone in facing the financial burden of organ donation, which discourages some people from donating organs.

The National Organ Transplant Act forbids the offer of any “valuable consideration” in exchange for an organ. It does allow “reasonable payments” for expenses, housing and lost wages, but those payments are seldom made and are often viewed as unethical in the United States.

“It’s a persistent problem,” said Dr. Mark Deierhoi, head of UAB’s kidney transplant program. Being an organ donor, he said, often does not qualify people for sick time or disability pay.

A group of transplant authorities — including UAB nephrologist Dr. Robert S. Gaston — proposed in October that Medicare, which pays for kidney transplants, start reimbursing donors for financial losses and provide follow-up insurance.

Reimbursement need?

Mark D. Fox of the Bioethics Center at The University of Oklahoma, criticized the proposal, saying it went too far and would lead poor people to donate organs for the money.

Bennett and Phipps donated organs despite the financial toll, but they don’t see the harm in reimbursing donors for losses.

Bennett, a native of Sand Rock who now lives in Cedartown, Ga., donated a kidney to David Guice of Cedartown.

Bennett’s benevolence put him behind on some bills but he doesn’t regret it in the least.

“I’d do it again just because of the look on his face and knowing he can live,” he said. “That feeling right there is worth it.”

As a member of the Georgia National Guard, his insurance would cover any future health complications.

Dothan’s Phipps is self-employed as a truck driver and carpenter, and doesn’t have insurance but belongs to a health discount plan. He was warned before the operation that there would be no long-term health coverage for unexpected complications.

“That’s one of the things they told us,” he said, grimacing in pain two days after the operation. “Once you leave, you’re on your own.”

Phipps donated his left kidney to Steve DeVane, 36, of Dothan.

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