Living organ donors help spearhead legislative protection

Published 7:02 am Thursday, March 17, 2022

By Joe Dodson

Capital News Service

Kat Velkoff was in college when she made a decision that would save a life nearly a decade later.

“I found out that you could be a kidney donor,” Velkoff said. “I just always knew that that was something I wanted to do.”

Velkoff said she had time to donate a kidney when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Before she could donate she was assigned a social worker who determines if applicants are mentally capable of making the decision to donate.

The social worker advised Velkoff to consider purchasing life insurance prior to donating so that she wouldn’t have to pay a higher premium after. Velkoff would have one kidney, which is considered a pre-existing condition that would raise her premiums.

Health insurers are prohibited from discriminating based on donor status because of the Affordable Care Act, but life, disability, and long-term insurance companies are not.

Velkoff, an ambassador for the American Kidney Fund, inspired legislation making headway in the Virginia General Assembly that would prohibit life, disability, and long-term insurance companies from denying others insurance or charging higher rates solely based on their organ donor status. Del. Karrie K. Delaney, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 421 while Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, introduced Senate Bill 271.

The Senate bill incorporated a bill from Sen. Ghazala F. Hashmi, D-Richmond, which required employers with 15 or more employees to allow 60 days of unpaid leave per year to serve as an organ donor, or 30 days of unpaid leave per year to serve as a bone marrow donor.

Those stipulations were removed once the bill reached the House, but Ebbin’s office hopes they will be added back to the final version.

Maryland and Kentucky are among 20 states that have passed similar laws, according to Melanie Lendnal, senior director of state policy and advocacy for the American Kidney Fund. The American Kidney Fund is working with Virginia and 12 other states to pass similar legislation this year, Lendnal said.

The state bills are modeled off of the federal Living Donor Protection Act, which was first proposed in Congress in 2017. The bill has failed to pass in multiple sessions, according to Lendnal.

“The goal ultimately is to ensure that we are able to remove as many barriers as possible for would-be living organ donors,” Lendnal said. “If people donate more, more lives can be saved.”

Karl Neumann wanted to donate an organ after spending his nursing career in organ transplant units. Neumann’s hopes for becoming a donor moved to the back burner after he tested positive in 2009 for HIV. Passage of the HOPE Act in 2013 allowed HIV positive people to donate organs to other HIV positive people. Only kidney and liver transplants were allowed when the bill took effect in 2015, but it was expanded in 2020 to include organs of any type.

Neumann became the second living HIV-positive organ donor in the nation in 2019. Neumann said his workplace gave him plenty of time off during the organ donation process, but time off would help other donors.

“There are donors that come in that are very worried about this,” Neumann said. “This is a very realistic thing for a lot of potential donors.”

Delaney’s amended bill would allow employers to also adopt or retain more generous leave policies.

Patrick Kacani received an email from a former University of Richmond roommate regarding the health of Matt Felix, their former roommate and Kacani’s soccer teammate. Felix needed a liver transplant.

Despite not knowing yet if he would be a match, Kacani said he had a feeling.

“It was this feeling that came over me that I really can’t describe,” Kacani said. “It was this sense of clarity that I’m going to do this.”

A liver transplant can take three months on average to recover from, according to Kacani. Kacani received short-term disability checks during his 10-week recovery.

Kacani supports the bill’s provision of time off from work. He outlined some of the common post-surgery complications that he worried about pre-transplant, which can lead to a longer than anticipated recovery time, including hernias and bile leaks.

When Tracey and Rick Ridpath’s friend died of a cancer involving his bladder, the couple felt inspired to save someone else’s life by donating their second kidneys.

“We couldn’t save Roger but there’s lots of other fathers, and uncles and grandfathers out there,” Tracey Ridpath said. “I’ll try and save somebody else in memory of our friend Roger.”

The pair, both who are K-12 teachers, completed their transplants during school breaks and also used accumulated sick days. However, they support legislation that allows organ donors unpaid time off for people who don’t have enough sick leave.

“If you’re a brand new teacher and you only got 10 sick days and you have a kid who gets sick all the time you might be worried about needing to use up your sick days,” Rick Ridpath said.

There have been 5,528 donations made from living donors in Virginia since 1988, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. One in every four donations in Virginia came from living organ donors in 2021, Lendnal said.

“The outcomes for patients who receive donations from living donors, as opposed to a deceased donor, are significantly increased,” Lendnal said.

Velkoff met her organ recipient, then 24-year old Agustin De La O Martinez. They often go to dinner together, and she said she enjoys seeing him do the things he couldn’t do while on dialysis.

“Donating a kidney is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life,” Velkoff said. “I think we all have more than we need.”