The federal government will break up the contract to oversee organ transplantation in the United States, a blow to the Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing, which has been the contract’s sole operator for almost 40 years.
In an announcement Wednesday, the Health Resources and Services Administration, which oversees UNOS, said it would reform, modernize and bring transparency the transplantation of kidneys, livers and other organs.
The split comes after years of criticism toward UNOS and a Congressional investigation in which critics said UNOS’s software is out of date, the number of transplanted organs falls short of expectation and that UNOS failed to discipline its struggling member organizations. Those missteps have led to patient deaths and an increased call for care, five U.S. senators said in a hearing last year.
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“For too long it’s been clear that UNOS has fallen short of the requirements for this contract and the expectations of Americans waiting for a transplant,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Wednesday in a statement.
In 1986, UNOS won the first federal contract to manage organ transplantation in the country. It has won every contract since, but the contract expires this year.
UNOS, on North Fourth Street in downtown, has 450 employees, according to its website. It welcomes a competitive bidding process, it said.
“We believe we have the experience and expertise required to best serve the nation’s patients and to help implement HRSA’s proposed initiative,” UNOS said.
As part of its investigation, the Senate Finance Committee recommended organ transplantation be split into five contracts: policy development, compliance, patient safety monitoring, IT infrastructure and logistics.
Molly McCarthy, vice chair of UNOS’ patient advisory committee, said numerous organizations inside and outside organ transplantation could vie for these contracts. Any number of large technology providers in the U.S. could improve UNOS’ IT infrastructure, and even online retail giant Amazon could improve logistics.
“You don’t have to have an MD to run most of the parts of the business,” McCarthy said.
Other organizations that handle living kidney donation, such as the National Kidney Donation Organization, could handle policy development.
HRSA also said it will modernize the IT system on which organ transplantation depends.
Diane Brockmeier, the CEO of Mid-America Transplant, a regional organ procurement organization, said last summer that UNOS’ software is slow and out of date. The White House’s United States Digital Services issued a report criticizing UNOS’ technological capabilities, saying staffers enter data by hand, leading to error.
Brian Shepard, who resigned as CEO of UNOS last year, defended UNOS’s technology in August, saying it is operational 99.9% of the time.
On Wednesday, UNOS said it is committed to working with the federal government and others “to assist in carrying out these reforms and to do our part to improve how we serve America’s organ donors, transplant patients and their families.”