RICHMOND, Va. -- A Richmond-based nonprofit that oversees the country's organ transplant network was the subject of nearly two hours of scrutiny from a Senate community on Wednesday.
Since it was first awarded in 1986, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) has held the government contract to manage the country's organ donor system.
However, Wednesday's hearing featured an array of senators from both parties and many people who are a part of the network saying the work they do isn't up to standard and UNOS shouldn't get the contract in the next cycle.
"As our investigation shows, UNOS is doing this job quite poorly," Sen. Ron Wyden, the Chair of the United States Committee on Finance, said.
Wyden says the issues with UNOS run the gamut and pointed to over 1,100 complaints between 2010 and 2020.
Among the issues, he said, was a failure to properly screen some of the organs used in donations.
"Between 2008 and 2015, 249 transplant recipients developed the disease from transplanted organs, more than a quarter of them died," Wyden said.
Senators and witnesses raised concerns about the transportation and tracking of organs in transit, issues with their IT systems being outdated and insecure and a lack of oversight of the 57 organ procurement organizations (OPO) which handle organ recovery.
"The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently issued new standards for OPO performance and more than a third of OPOs are failing to meet them," Wyden said.
UNOS' CEO Brian Shepard was present for Wednesday's hearing and defended his organization's work over three decades, including nine straight years of record-setting transplant numbers.
However, he said that he is open to improvements.
"We cannot rest until every patient who needs a transplant is able to get one," Shepard said.
Shepard said that his organization is more tasked with peer review and improvement while penalties are handled by CMS.
"I think it's important that we not try to make either of those systems look exactly like the other, but take advantage of the differences in those two systems to promote the best possible environment for patients," Shepard said.
On the IT front, Shepard said that UNOS meets and exceeds federal standards.
"Our IT uptime is 99.99% and we turn away more than three-million hacker attempts every day trying to get into patient data and we protect that data rigorously," Shepard said.
The senators said they would continue to look into ways to fix the issues they say they found but added some that could replace UNOS.
"I'll just be clear, you should lose this contract. You should not be allowed anywhere near the organ transplant system in this country," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a member of the United States Senate Committee on Finance, said.
Virginia senator Mark Warren is also a member of the committee. While he was not present at Wednesday's hearing, he shared a statement with CBS6 which reads in part:
Contractors who have the privilege of working with the U.S. government – including UNOS – have a responsibility to provide first-in-class services. It’s clear that UNOS must do more to address the shortcomings exposed by the Senate Finance Committee.
Shepard said the current contract runs through September 2023 and said they will be competitive and they expect to do this work.
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