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VOL. 10 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 20, 2017

National Foundation for Transplants Looks to Expand Beyond Memphis HQ

By Andy Meek

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The Memphis-based National Foundation for Transplants serves about 3,500 clients each year, and since its establishment in 1983 has distributed more than $80 million to pay for transplant-related expenses, in addition to promoting and advocating for organ and tissue donation.

But foundation president Michelle Gilchrist, while proud of that track record, has an ambitious agenda and wants to see the organization accomplish much more – to serve more, raise more money, and grow to become more of a regional entity with an even higher profile.

National Foundation for Transplants president Michelle Gilchrist says the nonprofit plans to add regional offices to meet increased demand. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“We’ve been headquartered here for 34 years, and we’ve grown from a local nonprofit to a national nonprofit covering all 50 states,” Gilchrist said. “But while we’ve grown in terms of our coverage, we’ve not grown in terms of our presence. We’re still only located here. So moving forward, we plan to in the next several years open regional offices. The reason for that is demand for our service has increased significantly.”

It’s been like that, really, since the organization was launched.

Originally called the Liver Organ Transplant Fund, the organization got its start thanks to three Memphis women who read about a young girl who needed a liver transplant but couldn’t afford the procedure. They worked to raise money to cover the operation and related expenses, which resulted in a successful transplant.

Other transplant candidates began reaching out. In addition to fundraising and helping thousands of transplant candidates and recipients each year, the organization in 2015 also began offering fundraising assistance and services to living donors.

Gilchrist wants to reach even higher. The numbers – many of them representing a price tag for care that’s out of reach for most patients on their own – help explain why.

The foundation cites stats from the Organ Procurement Transplant Network that show were more than 30,000 transplants were performed in 2016, but more than 120,000 people were wait-listed. Ninety-five percent of waiting candidates need a kidney or liver, according to the foundation, both of which can be donated by a living donor versus waiting for an organ from a deceased donor.

Prices cited by the foundation, based on 2014 numbers from the Milliman Research Report, showed estimated billed charges for a kidney transplant at $334,000. Lungs? $764,000.

Heart transplants topped $1 million.

“One of the things we’re trying to do,” Gilchrist says, thinking of patients looking at those numbers for the first time, “is to educate the community that all is not lost.”

Any talk about the size of those figures is also wrapped up in a larger discussion – one about affordability and the inexorably rising cost of care.

Gilchrist, for example, points to immunosuppressant drugs that can cost a few thousand dollars a month. The nation needs to have a conversation, she says, about what those prices mean for ordinary consumers.

U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Germantown spoke in recent days about the larger issue of soaring health care costs.

“Health care premiums have gone up by double digits in 31 states just this year, with premiums in Tennessee rising an average of 63 percent,” he said. “In some counties, premiums have risen as much as 116 percent with no ceiling in sight.”

The transplant foundation, for its part, tries to help when care is out of reach by helping families raise funds.

“Recently – I’m limited on the details I can share – but we got a call about a 9-year-old patient who was born with cystic fibrosis and was in need of a double lung transplant,” Gilchrist said. “The family’s portion was $1 million. That’s how much they had to come to the table with before they could be put on the (transplant) list.

“You don’t just – most people don’t have that type of disposable revenue. So what we begin to do is talk to the family and build a relationship to find out what discounts can they apply. Do they really need $1 million? And figuring out what we can do on our end so they could be put on the list and the child have a chance at life. We were able to help raise over $700,000 for her to be placed on the list. And just over a month ago, she received her transplant.”

The next chapter for the organization, she goes on, is a rebranding she wants to execute to make it more visible in the community, followed by taking the next step in soliciting funding from grant foundations.

“The big work we want to be able to do is going to require more than just us doing it. That’s just the reality,” Gilchrist said. “We’re also looking to make sure we do our level best to build relationships to help tell a story to inform people in the community. We need to be a thought leader on helping the community navigate the system.”

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