Local legislators support 'gift of life' organ recovery bills

Margarita Cambest
  • Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill's personal experience with organ donation makes her a strong supporter of HB 30.

When state Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill got the news that her father needed a heart transplant, she started documenting the days on Facebook.

In this file photo, state Reps. Kristin Phillips-Hill, right, and Kevin Schreiber listen to testimony during a public hearing on heroin at the Yorktowne Hotel Tuesday, Aug 18, 2015. Phillips-Hill is supporting a bill to update Pennsylvania's organ procurement laws. (Bill Kalina - bkalina@yorkdispatch.com)

The fact that Jay Phillips needed a transplant wasn’t surprising. At 74, the former physical education teacher had been dealing with complications from a pacemaker installation for a couple of years but was otherwise healthy. So when doctors told him his heart would soon fail, he told them he’d prefer the transplant go to someone younger, someone with more of their life left to live.

Then, just before 5 in the morning, the call came.

Nov. 21, 2013: “Dad’s new heart was beating in his chest today,” Phillips-Hill wrote the morning after her father’s transplant surgery. Updating as many friends and family members as possible gave her something to do to pass the time. It also let her spend more time with her family.

“It’s hard to put into words what you feel,” the York Township Republican said. “There are these little moments when you realize how incredibly blessed you are. “

State Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township

Phillips-Hill’s father, now 77, is not her only connection to organ donation. Five years before, a family friend’s 20-year-old son was killed by a drunken driver. Through organ donation, Zachary Sweitzer was able to save six lives after his death.

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“How ironic that five years later as a family we wind up on the other side of that, not donating but receiving that incredible gift of life.” Phillips-Hill said.

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Now a strong advocate for organ donation, Phillips-Hill is hoping legislation to update the state’s organ recovery laws for the first time since 1994 can be pushed through. Pennsylvania is one of just three states that have failed to bring state procedures in line with the federal Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. The state's law was last updated in 2006.

House Bill 30, or the Donate Life PA bill, stalled before the House went out of session last week. Its Senate counterpart, Senate Bill 180, would add an organ and tissue donation curriculum in Pennsylvania schools and allow minors to choose to become a donor while signing up for drivers’ permits. Both are on hold until at least Oct. 17, when legislators reconvene.

For the most part, local legislators are on board.

“We believe that ensuring quick access to these organs is of utmost concern,” said Jason High, chief of staff for state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township. “If there’s concerns down the road, then we will address them, but Sen. Wagner is very supportive of the bill.”

Coroners oppose: Organ procurement organizations such as Gift of Life, which serves central Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association have struggled to get legislators to iron out amendments that please both sides.

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While both groups agree with the importance of organ donation, representatives from the coroners association say they worry about the bill side-stepping the authority of Pennsylvania’s elected coroners. In the case of a homicide, when they need to recover evidence from all parts of the body, they say they worry about a provision requiring coroners to deny individual cases in person.

State Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Latrobe, the primary sponsor of the bill, says that claim is unfounded.

“The legislation says and has always said that coroners have the final say when donation occurs,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to kill this bill.”

Coroners would have to provide a reason for preventing organ procurement organizations from recovering organs at the hospital if it is the deceased's or their family’s wish. However, Petrarca said the language of the bill allows coroners to send that denial through electronic means, such as Skype or Facetime, if they’re physically unable to come to the hospital in person.

According to Save a Life Now PA, Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of times coroners and medical examiners have denied organ procurement organizations from recovering organs after a death. Since January 2014, 28 denials have been recorded in Pennsylvania.

Coroners say this statistic negates the hundreds of times they approve both tissue and organ donation. However, more populous states such as New Jersey and Florida denied procurement in the same time period less than a handful of times.

For its part, York County has no recorded denials in that time period.

“We do have to respect the living and the dead by having a law in place that protects those who did not pass by accident,” Phillips-Hill said of homicide investigations. “If something has gone terribly wrong, we do want to make sure that whoever is wrong is held accountable for death.”

However, her hope is that the legislation will be negotiated and move forward in the next two weeks.

“There really is no greater gift than the gift of life,” she said.