Washington For years, the Department of Health and Human Services has been fighting to change the way scarce organs are distributed to waiting transplant patients. Now Tommy Thompson, who has vigorously championed the other side, is set to take the helm of HHS.
Thompson and the state he governs, Wisconsin, are among the staunchest opponents of the HHS effort to break down the geographic lines that help determine who gets the first chance at donated livers, hearts, kidneys, pancreases and lungs. Wisconsin even sued the department to try and stop it from changing the rules.
If confirmed as secretary, Thompson will have an opportunity to send federal policy in a new direction a prospect that has the department's opponents cheering.
"We are very, very pleased with the president's nomination extremely pleased," said Mark Rosenker, a spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the nation's transplant network and has resisted HHS pressure to overhaul the system. He joked that for UNOS, the only better HHS secretary might have been the organization's own executive director.
Meanwhile, the department's supporters are nervously hoping that Thompson will see things differently once he takes a national post.
"He would not have been my first choice but that doesn't mean he cannot rise to the occasion," said Charlie Fiske, a patient advocate who has lobbied for changes. "It's one thing for the governor to advocate for the state of Wisconsin. It's another issue when the secretary of Health and Human Services has to deal with the country."
The debate divides the nation sharply along geographic grounds. Any change in distribution would mean more organs for some hospitals and some cities. Others would get less.
Under the current system, patients who are waiting in the same area as the donors get first crack at a donated organ, even if there is someone sicker waiting in a nearby community. If there are no community matches, organs are distributed within prescribed regions, and then nationally.
Changing the pecking order would hurt Wisconsin, where Thompson has been governor for 14 years. For reasons that are not completely understood, the state has very high donor rates, meaning there are more organs available to the patients who are waiting at Wisconsin hospitals.
Thompson's spokesman, Kevin Keane, said Tuesday that the governor would have no comment on this or any other policy issue as he awaits Senate confirmation, although he noted that Thompson has regularly encouraged organ donation in his state.