Japan mulls partial insurance coverage for urgent overseas organ transplants

Kyodo

The health ministry is considering a measure to cover part of the expenses shouldered by patients who go abroad for urgent organ transplants, sources close to the matter said Saturday.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is looking to begin offering the insurance payment as early as fiscal 2018 starting in April to cover some of the costs that are now fully borne by patients.

The ministry is likely to provide around ¥10 million ($88,100) per patient, an amount similar to that given to cover the fees for surgery and other hospital charges when a transplant is conducted in Japan, the sources said.

It would cost about ¥200 million to ¥300 million, depending on health conditions, for a patient to go abroad for organ transplant surgery with travel expenses included.

There will likely be fewer than 10 patients, mostly children, who are expected to benefit from the insurance coverage every year, and the move could possibly encourage more people to go abroad for organ transplants. Since 1988, 116 children under 18 have traveled abroad to get new hearts.

But some experts said the move might see Japan branded as a promoter of overseas organ transplants for defying an international principle that urges each country to domestically secure the organs needed for such operations.

More than 20 years have passed since the law on organ transplantation was enacted in Japan to allow donations from brain-dead donors. But due to slow changes in the medical environment, only a small number of donations are available in comparison with the waiting lists.

Some 14,000 patients in Japan need transplants, but only about 100 donations take place a year, much fewer than in Europe, the United States and South Korea.

Among patients registered with the Japan Organ Transplant Network, those who meet certain criteria, including the existence of a threat to survival due to waiting, will likely be eligible for the insurance coverage.

Patients will also be required to submit documents proving that their surgeries do not fall under illegal organ trades.

Takashi Nagai, chairman of a Japanese association supporting transplantations, said that expenses for overseas transplant more than tripled over the past 20 years to hundreds of millions of yen.

“Many people are struggling to raise money. Even partial payment (support) would be helpful for patients.”