AP Medical Writer

WASHINGTON — Doctors dropped another bomb soon after telling Matthew Rosiello it was time for a liver transplant: The 21-year-old isn't likely to get one any time soon in his home state of New York. Consider traveling to Ohio, they advised, where the wait's a lot shorter.

Where you live plays a big role in how sick you are, and how long you wait, before getting a scarce liver transplant — if you survive long enough. Now the network that runs the U.S. organ transplant system is exploring steps to ease some of the disparities. Critics who want more nationwide sharing of donated livers fear any changes won't help enough.

Waiting lists

“I'll go anywhere for my son. This is his life,” says Matthew's mother, Randy Rosiello, of New York City, who has begun researching waiting lists from Ohio to North Carolina as the family debates its next step.

But she doesn't think her son should have to leave his doctors at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center or undergo the stress of travel. Plus, she worries, “if I have to go, I'm putting my family into financial ruin.”
The nation has a severe shortage of donated livers. More than 16,000 people are awaiting a liver transplant and just 6,300 a year get one. More than 1,400 others die waiting each year.

Since 2002, the sickest patients have been ranked atop waiting lists to receive a liver from a deceased donor. They're given a so-called MELD score, based on laboratory tests, that predicts their risk of death. Rising scores move them up on the waiting list. The change, by all accounts, has greatly improved the system which once was based instead on time spent waiting.

Available organs

Here's the lingering trouble: Patients with liver failure and would-be donors are not distributed evenly around the country. And the nation is divided into 11 transplant regions that have wide variations in patients and available organs, between regions and within them.

A donated liver is offered first to the sickest patients in the local transplant center and, if there's no good match, then to the sickest patients throughout that transplant region. If there's still no good match, the liver can go to someone who's not as sick, rather than to someone sicker in the next transplant region. Patients can shop around for shorter lines, even get on more than one list, if they have the means to get to a far-away hospital within hours of a liver becoming available.

Median score

How big are the differences? The United Network for Organ Sharing says that in three regions stretching from Ohio down through Tennessee and on to Florida, adults receiving new livers in the past year had median MELD scores of 23 to 24. But, in the New York and western Vermont region, liver recipients were far sicker, with a median score of 32. Only the region that includes California fared worse, with 37.

Within regions, rates of people who die on the waiting list or become too sick to transplant range from fewer than 10 percent to more than 25 percent each year.

So UNOS' liver committee is seeking feedback from transplant centers about options to improve, in hopes of proposing changes later this year.

Topping the list: If a liver isn't a good match to the sickest patients within one region — as measured by a MELD of 15 or more — offer it nationwide before giving it to a less sick local patient.

Better organs

New York transplant centers suggest splitting the country into four or five “super regions” where the sickest patients in the entire zone would get first dibs. No, livers don't last outside the body as long as kidneys that often are shipped long distances. But Florman says his hospital successfully flies in livers from Florida that hospitals there turn down as less-than-optimal — because, say, the donor was elderly — meaning better organs should have no problem.

And often less-than-optimal organs go to waste, because of restrictions on when hospitals can take a chance with them, adds Dr. Thomas Fishbein of Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., another hard-hit area.


Transplant center data: www.srtr.org
United Network for Organ Sharing: www.unos.org