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The nation's largest insurer, UnitedHealthcare, said Sunday that it will pay the travel and lodging expenses of people who are donating kidneys to customers of the insurer starting in 2017.
UnitedHealthcare's move to fund such expenses up to $5,000 — regardless of whether the donor is covered by the insurer — could boost the number of living kidney donations in the United States above the current rate of just 1 in 5 donations.
It could also help lower the insurer's long-term costs from covering significant claims by patients who require kidney dialysis, or who experience less success with a donation than they would have if they had received a kidney from a live person.
Recipients of living-donor kidneys tend to see longer quality performance from the new organ, and a higher survival rate.
"Many healthy people are eligible to donate a kidney, yet only one-third of kidney transplants come from living donors," said Dr. Jon Friedman, chief medical officer for complex medical conditions programs at Optum, which is managing transplant services for the insurers.
Both Optum and UnitedHealthcare are owned by UnitedHealth Group.
"This initiative will make it easier for living kidney donors to provider a life-saving gift to patients and their families," said Friedman, who made the announcement of the reimbursement policy at the American Transplant Congress in Boston.
The American Society of Transplantation has said that nearly all kidney donors — 96 percent — have some financial consequences that they have to deal with in connection with their donation.
Dr. James Allan, president of AST, said the offer is "significant," adding that "we hope this is only the first step as our health-care system works to remove financial and other barriers to organ donation."
About 100,000 people in the U.S. currently need a kidney transplant.
UnitedHealthcare's offer to donors for travel and lodging will include the evaluation process for donation and continue through follow-up visits up to two years after the donation. That reimbursement would be on top of coverage of medical expenses associated with both the recipient, as well as with the donor, in the event the donor is a UnitedHealth customer.
A UnitedHealthcare spokeswoman noted that a kidney transplant costs around $150,000. In contrast, dialysis treatment for person needing a transplant costs about $260,000, every year.
The insurer also pointed out that recipients of living-donor kidneys tend to have their kidneys function well for 15 to 20 years, compared to just seven to 10 years from a deceased donor.
And about 90 percent of people who get a live-donor kidney live for at least five years, compared to 82 percent who receive a deceased donor kidney, the company said.
Another major insurer, Cigna, has provided a travel benefit for donors of all types of organs since at least 2000, according to Deborah Rodriguez, vice president of operations at Cigna LifeSource Transplant Network. Like UnitedHealthcare's announced program, only the recipient need be a customer of the insurer, not the donor.
Rodriguez said there is no dollar limit on travel expenses for the donor, although their coverage for travel is a shorter window than for the recipient.
"We cover travel expenses for the transplant event. So if they are traveling more than 60 miles from their home to the transplant facility, we'll cover their travel and lodging starting with the day they travel to the hospital for their donation surgery, and for up to 30 days after discharge from the admission," Rodriguez said. "We cover transportation costs: air travel, train, rental car, and it they use their personal car, we will cover their gas."
"The benefit also pays for up to $50 per night for lodging if they have to stay at a hotel preadmission or post-admission. The benefit covers nontaxable expenses," she said.