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Organ agency changes course

Two years ago, LifeLink of Florida was assailed because of its high-priced compensation policy, its exclusive governing board and a series of cozy business relationships involving directors.

Today, after the hiring of a public relations consultant to polish the company's image, and as the IRS winds up an audit of the organ procurement firm, changes are under way.

The headquarters of LifeLink, a renovated former synagogue at 2111 W Swann Ave., is no longer owned by a group of doctors who served on LifeLink's governing board and helped set their own rent.

The board has been broadened by the addition of lay directors, including women, minorities and individuals involved in the transplant process.

A key director has resigned from LifeLink's board to defuse criticism about conflicts of interest. And the practice of using a non-profit fund to assist donor families has been phased out because of concerns that it might be perceived by the public as paying for body parts.

"LifeLink has always been successful," said John R. "Jay" Campbell, a lawyer with and vice president of the company. "In the last two years, we've tried to expand on that success and do it in a way that's more responsive to the community we're in."

Compensation remains high at LifeLink, but so does the rate of organ recovery, and the 150-employee company makes no apologies about how it spends the $19-million it brings in annually.

"I think we hire the best people available and pay them commensurately," Campbell said.

As an organ procurer, Lifelink now operates four federally licensed organizations that act as middlemen between organ donors and transplant patients. The firm subsists largely on Medicare reimbursements for its services.

The sale of the Swann Avenue office building this summer symbolizes the company's sensitivity to public image. In a 1992 Times series, the company was criticized for a policy that allowed some directors to benefit by owning the building and renting it back to LifeLink _ acting, in effect, as both landlord and tenant.

In June, the physicians' partnership that owned the property sold it for $2.95-million.

"We've eliminated the concept of arm's length," Campbell said. "The LifeLink Foundation is now the owner of the building."

An ongoing IRS audit had no effect on the sale, he said. Federal auditors looking at the company examined comparable office rents in the Hyde Park area, according to a records subpoena issued to the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office.

The physicians' partnership, Westland Associates, made a profit on the sale, but actually sold it for less than the property's appraised value. Documents supplied by LifeLink show the owners invested $2.82-million to buy and renovate the property. But a Georgia bank appraised the property at $3.1-million, Campbell said.

Contrary to a federal mandate that procurement organizations have broad-based governing boards, LifeLink's was formerly composed exclusively of men with a direct stake in the company's success. Last year, LifeLink added its first lay members, including women. Now, it is adding three other lay directors:

Anna Crespo, a Tampa woman of Puerto Rican ancestry and the wife of a heart donor.

Marjorie Hunter, an Atlanta lawyer and transplant recipient.

Mary Ann Fitzpatrick, the office manager for LifeLink of Georgia, named to the board to represent LifeLink employees.

"It is clear that the sentiment in the professional community is that board membership reflect the lay, donor and patient community," Campbell said.

A longtime board member also has resigned to avoid any conflict of interest, Campbell said.

Dr. Lawrence Kahana, a kidney specialist, rents space for his medical practice in the Swann Avenue building but decided to leave the board earlier this year.

"We wanted to eliminate any area where there's a related party transaction," Campbell said. "We've had discussions with the IRS about it, and they echo the sentiment that separation of the parties will keep out any perception that there's an inappropriate related party transaction."

After criticism in the Times series, LifeLink discontinued "The Good Samaritan Fund," a non-profit charity account used to help needy donor families.

Federal law makes it illegal to pay for organs or tissue, but LifeLink ventured into a gray area with seven payments of $500 to $600 to assist with burial or other expenses of organ donors.

Assistance was never tied to donations, but Campbell said the fund was dropped because of "the public perception problem."

LifeLink continues to be among the most generous of any organ procurement organization in the United States. In 1990, tax returns show, the company's top five officials earned slightly more than $500,000 total _ not including bonuses. Two years later, their combined salaries topped $738,000.

Directors and staff continue to enjoy annual bonuses, which, though approved by Medicare, are frowned on by some ethicists as "bounties" paid for body parts. Overall, LifeLink's bonuses totaled less than 6 percent last year, Campbell said.

"Demands are very high here," he said. "You are on call most days of the year. Staffers don't have the kind of personal lives others have."

Campbell believes LifeLink's track record and national reputation are defense enough against critics who complain about bonuses and rates of pay. During the first six months of 1994, LifeLink of Florida ranked second in the nation in donors per million people, while LifeLink of Southwest Florida ranked fifth.

The consistently high rankings have other procurement organizations traveling to Tampa to learn from LifeLink.

The secret is not merely public education, says Campbell, but person-to-person contact with those most frequently in the position of seeking relatives' consent for organ donation, such as emergency room personnel and medical examiners.

Using a liaison system to make these contacts, LifeLink of Florida increased donors of internal organs by 52 percent in three years.

Now, LifeLink has added another geographic area to its growing service area: Puerto Rico. The company won federal approval and set up operations in San Juan this summer, and procured its first internal organs on the island earlier this month.

Campbell said LifeLink looked to Puerto Rico after it became apparent that a San Juan hospital was unable to meet the transplant needs of the commonwealth. With a population of 3.5-million, Puerto Rico had only four to eight organ donors a year. By comparison, LifeLink last year had 93 organ donors in the Tampa Bay area, aregion whose population is 25 percent smaller.

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