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Health Officials: Ann Landers Column Frightened Away Organ Donors

July 25, 1991

CHICAGO (AP) _ An Ann Landers column about organ donors whose families were mistakenly charged for their generosity has alarmed thousands and prompted some people to tear up their donor cards, health officials said.

″We are extremely concerned,″ Esther Benenson, spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing in Richmond, Va., said Wednesday. ″We were flooded with calls from people calling just to make sure that their families weren’t going to be charged, and from people who said they no longer wanted to be donors.″

Landers said in a statement Tuesday that she will run a clarifying column in August. She urged people not to change their minds about donating organs.

″I find it tragic that so many readers misunderstood the column on transplantation and are now tearing up their donor cards,″ she said.

Transplant organs were in short supply before the column. Last year there were 6,145 donors nationwide, up from 5,797 in 1989, Benenson said.

″Anything that can cut into organ donation is serious,″ said Betty Perls, spokeswoman for the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois. ″There are currently 23,711 people waiting for transplants nationwide and seven a day are going to die.″

The column, which appeared July 14 in newspapers around the country, featured letters from readers who reported being billed thousands of dollars for relatives’ donated organs. It quoted an expert as saying the charges were a mistake.

″The problem is a lot of people read the letters and they don’t read the response ... or they believe the letters, the underdogs, and don’t believe the authority,″ Benenson said.

The New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network has gotten calls and letters from several potential donors ″who appeared to be very skeptical of the position that indeed there is no cost associated with donation,″ said Denise Payne, executive director.

″One letter I received indicated a man and his wife had taken their donor cards out of their wallets,″ Payne said.

The costs readers complained about may have been charges for treatment their relatives received before they died, or may have been clerical errors, Benenson said.

″No donor family is ever charged for the cost of organ removal,″ she said.

Those costs - ranging roughly from $1,500 to $4,000 - are borne by the transplant recipient.

Officials said the concerns about costs were added to other needless worries that people have about donating organs, including fear that if they sign donor cards hospitals will let them to die so they can take their organs.

A January poll of 600 Louisiana residents found that 60 percent were willing to donate an organ, but only 14 percent had taken steps toward doing so, said Louise Jacobbi, executive director of the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency.

Those figures are ″fairly representative of the country,″ Jacobbi said. ″We’re out there constantly walking uphill.″

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