Blog by James Myers
James Myers lives in Indiana and is a member of Facebook’s Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI). He suffers from End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) or Kidney failure. Jim is on dialysis and has been active locally and nationally in the effort to end the 36 month limit on Medicare coverage of anti-rejection drugs. He is one of the 100,000 kidney patients on the national transplant waiting list. Jim is a frequent thoughtful and valuable contributor to the discussions on OTI and we thank him profusely for writing the following blog.
ARE DIALYSIS PATIENTS NOT SEEKING KIDNEY TRANSPLANTS BECAUSE ANTI-REJECTION DRUGS COST TOO MUCH?
By James Myers
Everyone is born with two kidneys, but we can survive with one if necessary. Sometimes called “The Silent Epidemic” Kidney disease affects millions and threatens even more. 600,000 American citizens suffer from ESRD (End Stage Renal Disease) and kidney failure which leaves you with 3 choices: (1) dialysis; (2) a kidney transplant or (3) death. Kidney transplant recipients must take immunosuppressive drugs for the life of their transplant, or they risk losing their new organ. Medicare pays for the transplant and immunosuppressive drugs for 36
months post-transplant unless beneficiary is Medicare-aged (65) or Medicare-disabled. The Medicare (ESRD) program pays for dialysis or transplantation for over 600,000 kidney disease patients every year, regardless of age, and has saved millions of lives in the four decades since its enactment. After a transplant, recipients must take immunosuppressive drugs every day for the rest of his or her life. Failure to do so significantly increases the risk of organ rejection and therefore, death. If you are covered by Medicare due to either age or disability and have a transplant your anti-rejection drugs are covered for life. If you are not covered due to age or disability Medicare will still pay for your kidney transplant, but will only cover anti-rejection drugs for 36 months, then you are on your own. this policy makes absolutely no sense because, ironically, Medicare will pay for a lifetime of dialysis which costs more and even more ironically, if you go into rejection because you can’t afford to buy the drugs that prevent it, Medicare will pay for another transplant and/or dialysis at costs that are many times that of the annual expense of immunosuppressant drugs. This political slight of hand act not only wastes U.S. taxpayer dollars, it can actually cause death.
Here are some startling facts that make you wonder why congress refuses to make a common sense change. When Medicare coverage ends after 36 months many transplant recipients have difficulty finding other coverage for their immunosuppressive drugs. Medicare spends around $90.000 per year for an individual who is on dialysis and $125,000 during the first year of a kidney transplant. However, after that first year the transplant patient’s drug costs plummet to $25,000 or a little over $2,000 a month. Not many people have an easy time paying that bill but for the federal government it would be a cost saving measure to cover the drugs rather than pay for a new transplant or more dialysis. Furthermore, extending mmunosuppressive coverage beyond the 36-month post-transplant limit would improve outcomes and enable more kidney patients who lack adequate insurance to consider transplantation. Most transplant recipients also have a higher quality of life, and are more likely to return to work than dialysis patients, and if they return to work they again become taxpayers.
Currently, there is a bill pending in the U.S. senate (S. 323), “The Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act,” would extend Medicare Part B coverage for kidney transplant recipients for the purpose of immunosuppressive drugs only. All other Medicare coverage would end 36 months after the transplant. Beneficiaries would be responsible for the appropriate portion of the Part B premium, as well as applicable deductible and coinsurance requirements. For patients who have another form of health insurance, Medicare would be the secondary payer. The bill also requires that group health plans currently providing coverage of immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplant recipients maintain this coverage.
There is a corresponding bill in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1428): Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act. The Senate version of the bill has been passed out of committee.
Last week, I read a blog I found to be disturbing. Coupled with that, I received a note from one of my friends. The note and the blog indicated that people who were unable to age/disability qualify for Medicare were refusing transplants due to the high costs of the anti-rejection medications. According to Cameron Field and Kidney Buzz, of the 275,000 people who are on dialysis in the United States, only 93,000 chose to be listed on the US Kidney Transplant Waiting List. Two thirds of dialysis patients are not listed, while only one third had chosen to list.
Does the prospect of Medicare coverage for only 36 months and then the average monthly cost of approximately $2100/ month cause people to decline the transplant option? Of course, there may be others reasons to decline; it requires a surgery, the risk of infection, the risk of rejection even if you take the meds, the necessary follow up, and pain, but sources are now saying that it may be possible that up to 34% of dialysis patients are declining transplants due to the cost of anti-rejection meds. They know they will die without the transplant but they have no choice.
The Dialysis Patient Citizens conducted a survey last year on this issue. 29% said they had other medical conditions. 26% said they were too old. 7% said they were overweight. 6% said their doctors didn’t recommend it. 5% said they were satisfied with dialysis. However, 6% cited financial reasons generally, 4% said they couldn’t afford the surgery, and 2.5% said they couldn’t afford the medications. 17% cited personal reasons. Who knows how many in that 17% didn’t want to disclose financial hardship. So according to the DPC’s data, between 13% and 30% aren’t on the list due to financial reasons. Of the 13,000 transplants performed last year, 6,000 were from living donors, but there are some barriers to living donation that must be overcome, as well.
Nearly everyone knows that while we are born with two kidney’s we can live with just one, so many people choose to donate the second kidney to a dying patient,. While the recipients insurance pays the medical costs the donor is often left footing the bill for lost wages while hospitalized and travel to and from the transplant center. Some states,but not all will provide reimbursement in the form of tax deductions, but nice as they are, they don’t put cash in the pocket of the donor. The feds have a few grants available but they are grossly underfunded and so many have to foot the bill themselves. That knowledge may prevent many from offering to be donors. The DPC estimates that cost to reimburse lost wages is about $6,000 for one surgery. When you look at in in terms of Medicare paying for the transplant surgery ($100,000) and for the cost of anti-rejection drugs ($24,000 a year), travel and lost wages for the donor would be a minimal expense and if available would likely increase the number of living donors.
So where do we stand? If 30% of the people taking dialysis refuse to be listed due to the costs of transplant autoimmune medications, then we are talking about approximately 100,000 people who cannot afford a life-saving transplant.
Everyone on dialysis knows that life expectancy while on that machine is, on average, from 3-5 years. Life expectancy for a transplant, from a living donor is on average, 12 to 20 years, while a deceased donor kidney is somewhat less, 8 to 12 years. If you receive a kidney transplant before you are required to begin dialysis then you will live 10 to 15 years longer than if you stayed on dialysis. So, even though a kidney transplant involves major surgery and requires some risk, in comparison it offers you a longer life. Most patients who have been on dialysis before their transplant see an amazing difference in their quality of life.
There are two closely related issues here that can be resolved.by one simple action. The Congress must pass and the President must sign the bill that would provide lifetime coverage of anti-rejection drugs. It is the only logical, financially responsible and humane solution to a problem that has already caused untold misery and death.
If you find the current law absurd and a waste of money and want to see it changed to save lives and taxpayer dollars then you can help by writing to your congressional representative or U.S. Senator today. The sample letter below can be used as a guide, but we encourage you to use your own words.
Dear ____; I am contacting you to request that you cosponsor important legislation for chronic kidney disease patients (for the house, refer to file H.R. 1428. For the senate refer to file S 323), the “Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act to help kidney transplant recipients obtain the life-saving immunosuppressive medications that are necessary to maintain the viability of their new kidney.
Individuals with chronic kidney failure require kidney dialysis or a transplant to survive, and are eligible for Medicare regardless of age or other disability. There is no time limit on Medicare coverage for dialysis patients. However, transplant recipients who are not aged or disabled retain Medicare eligibility only for 36 months following their transplant. After their Medicare ends, they often face the challenge of obtaining group health insurance or other coverage, greatly increasing the risk of organ rejection if they cannot afford their required medications. If the transplanted kidney fails, they return to dialysis or receive another transplant, both of which are more costly (Medicare spends about $90,000 annually on a dialysis patient and about $25,000 per year for a kidney transplant recipient, after the year of the transplant).
The current bill would extend Medicare Part B eligibility, and only for immunosuppressive medications. Coverage for any other health needs would end 36 months after the transplant, as under current law. The legislation also requires group health plans to maintain coverage of immunosuppressive drugs if they presently include such a benefit in their coverage. Lifetime immunosuppressive coverage will improve long term transplant outcomes, enable more kidney patients who lack adequate insurance to consider transplantation, and reduce the number of kidney patients who require another transplant. Nobody should lose a transplant because they are not able to pay for the drugs to maintain it.
On behalf of thousands of transplant patients, I respectfully request your support of this legislation. Sincerely,
In order to help you write to your representative in congress Bob’s Newheart has provided the following resource. You can find your elected representatives and others here http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml or you can use the following links as well
To find your U.S. Senator’s address click on this link http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
To find your congressional representative click on this link. http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.