ALBANY – New York State has the nation’s lowest percentage of residents signed up to donate organs upon their death, but the potential donor pool could grow by tens of thousands through a law awaiting the governor’s signature.
Advocates this week are making a last push to get Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign a bill that would lower the age of consent from 18 to 16 for organ, eye and tissue donations. Cuomo, who has already warmed to the idea of improving organ donation participation, has a Friday deadline to sign or veto the bill.
“This is not New York being pioneering. This is not New York being bold, said Aisha Tator, executive director of the New York Alliance for Donation, whose members include hospitals, transplant surgeons and pharmaceutical companies. “This is New York catching up with the rest of the nation and addressing a public health crisis.”
Legislation passed this session and sent last week to Cuomo for his consideration would drop the age when New Yorkers can sign up on a statewide registry to donate organs upon their death from 18 to 16. That would bring New York in line with 47 other states. Parents of 16- and 17-year-olds would be notified if their child signed up to be a donor, and could revoke it until the child reaches age 18.
In New York, about 26 percent of people over age 18 are enrolled in the New York State Donate Life Registry, a state government database that hospitals must check to determine if a seriously ill patient is on the list.
The percentage of people registered as possible organ donor volunteers in New York State is half the national average, according to Donate Life America, a Richmond, Va., national advocacy group.
The organ donation sign-up numbers vary across New York, from a high of 46 percent in Tompkins County to a low of 10 percent in Orleans County, according to the New York Alliance for Donation. Downstate residents generally register to donate less often than upstate.
In Erie County, the registration level stood at 26 percent earlier this spring, according to data compiled by the New York advocacy group. In Niagara County, the level was at 41 percent.
In New York, 88 percent of donor registrants come through license applications with the Department of Motor Vehicles, which lets potential donors check a box to get them into the state registry, Tator said. Another 10 percent or so are driven through voter registrations. New York, in 2009, became the first and still only state to accept organ donation sign-ups via the voter registration process.
Not allowing organ donation sign-ups when new drivers get their licenses at age 16 or 17 creates a significant effect on donor registrations that can last for years. That’s because the next time many 16- or 17-year-old drivers fill out a DMV form is in their late 20s, when their drivers licenses are up for renewal. New York State, for the purposes of attracting organ donors, also worsened the problem when it went several years ago to DMV license renewals once every eight years.
Supporters of the legislation say new steps need to be taken to bolster the organ donor registration program, which now numbers about 4 million people.
“This will help decrease the shortage of organ donations that we have in the state of New York,” said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, a Brooklyn Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Assembly.
Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Nassau County Republican and the Senate bill sponsor, recently wrote to Cuomo urging him to sign the bill.
“There are currently over 10,000 New Yorkers on the organ donor waiting list, and every 15 hours, one person dies because access to a life-saving organ transplant was not available,” Hannon wrote.
A Cuomo spokesman said the bill is under review.
New York State last year saw a total of 1,929 organ donation transplants, with 1,400 coming from deceased donors and the rest from living donors, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which manages the nation’s organ transplant system on behalf of the federal government.
The national group listed 10,042 people in New York on a waiting list for an organ transplant, with 8,200 of those in need of a kidney transplant. New York has the nation’s third largest organ donation waiting list.
One donor can save up to eight lives given the number of organs or organ parts that can be transferred between bodies, according to proponents of the legislation pending before Cuomo. Other parts, such as skin, eyes and bone, can end up helping as many as 50 people coming from one donor, the health group said.
The legislation lowering the organ donation age of consent passed this spring by 133-4 in the Assembly and 59-1 in the Senate.
Organ transplant experts say New York’s low donor sign-up problem contributes to long waiting lists for transplants. In New York, according to Tator of the New York Alliance for Donation, the average wait for a kidney is five years. In Massachusetts, the wait averages three months.
“Clearly, New York is an anomaly,” she said of differences like the higher sign-up age for people to donate organs.
Forty percent of the states have no minimum age at all for organ transplant consent. “This is an administrative glitch,” Tator said of the move to lower the consent age in New York from 18 to 16. “This is not something thought to be revolutionary.”