What Prevents Surgeons And Hospitals From Providing Free Surgery To Save A Life?

Sunset at Organ Pipes

Image by Bill Gracey via Flickr

News organizations are reporting this evening that at least two patients have died in Arizona because the state has decided it can no longer afford to pay for organ transplants for low-income patients.

The organ transplants can cost from $200,000 to more than $1 million, according to NPR.  A list of 98 patients are potentially impacted in Arizona. NPR provided this explanation of the Arizona budget decision in November:

“In Arizona, 98 low-income patients approved for organ transplants have been told they are no longer getting them because of state budget cuts.

The patients receive medical coverage through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state’s version of Medicaid.” — National Public Radio

WTF?  How can a state justify refusing organ transplants to low-income patients, particularly in cases where the refusal amounts to a death sentence without a trial?

But there’s another question that’s even more compelling:

Why have no surgeons or hospitals offered to do the life-saving surgery for free?

What prevents a doctor or hospital from providing free life-saving treatment? DO THE SURGERY FOR FREE! Would that be un-American?

Am I missing something here? Would a surgeon or hospital spokesperson care to comment? Is there not a single, altruistic transplant surgeon in America? Is there not a single hospital affiliated with a religion that would be willing to provide free surgery as an act of charity, for God’s sake?

What? Would it set a bad precedent, or something?

— John Hayden

7 thoughts on “What Prevents Surgeons And Hospitals From Providing Free Surgery To Save A Life?

  1. Hi John,
    I haven’t been keeping up with this part of our health care system enough to make an educated comment, but then, how much do we really need to know to see that this is wrong? Surely, at the very least, this is unethical.
    What about that oath medical doctors must take?


  2. At the risk of being cynical, one thing that comes to mind is that doctors remain liable, under our god-awful medico-legal system, for any problems that arise after care even when it is donated. Given the likelihood of something going wrong after surgery in a scenario like this, in which aftercare is bound to be sketchy and out of their control, I suspect there are doctors who might say “Is it worth a wretched lawsuit?”

    Sounds shabby, I know, but a fragmented system such as exists in this country creates a CYA attitude. I had clients, a married doctor and nurse, who told me about wrongful death suits filed by parents who had been told that their baby would not survive long after birth. 25 grand just to make them go away. A few experiences like that and I might go sour on my oath, too.

    Which is just another reason that the so-called health care reform that we got is a joke when we are looking at a whole system that needs to be remade.


    • Yes, sledpress, you are right on. The system is “god-awful.”
      I don’t blame doctors for a broken system and wish I had put my thinking cap on before replying earlier. My response was possibly emotional out of fear that I may one day be a “low-income,” patient who can’t get life-saving medical care.


  3. Yes, the medicaid cuts in Arizona and many other states underline the need for a comprehensive, single-payer health care system in the U.S. “Everybody in, nobody out.”
    And the recent shooting tragedy in Arizona has increased awareness of our mental health system (or lack thereof) in most states. People suffering from mental illness need the same access to care as people with physical illness.


  4. That’s a complicated issue — the mental health one. Loughner makes me think of Laurie Dann — the shooter in the Winnetka, IL school killings of a couple of decades ago. I don’t know about Loughner’s family, but there aren’t many food stamps used in Winnetka. Dann had had a fancy wedding and there was plenty of money rattling around; no lack of access to care. But because her family cultivated such denial about weird habits like stuffing wads of raw meat behind the sofa cushions, the psychiatric attention she got wasn’t anything like adequate to the situation. She ended up spraying a schoolroom with gunfire.

    Still, it would certainly de-complicate things if instead of navigating a maze, someone who was losing touch with reality could be steered to care without any worry about the process being derailed by “who pays.”


  5. Good point. I think with most mental health issues, denial is the first and most difficult obstacle to overcome. And even when treatment is sought, patient compliance with treatment and medication is often a problem. Universal availability of treatment will not solve all problems.


  6. Hello John,

    I like your comments- excellent in nature and address the future direction that America and the west ought to take. We all need to address this problem. Notwithstanding it, of course there were many surgeons right in the USA and many medical doctors who would like to help. One of my cousin had a heart surgery way back in 1970s. The surgeon offered to perform the operation free of cost to an Asian. When one travels on aeroplane, one notices the spirit of surgeons and physicians. But once they land on the ground and in their habitats, it is different story. They want to respect their fellow professional colleagues of course.

    One nation I come across where surgery is free I heard is in India a university started by Sri Putaparthi saibaba of Puttaparth, Puttaparthi, Chttoor District( close to Chennai)i in the State of Andhra Pradesh, India. People from north to south of india go there for heart, kidney related surgery- all free of cost for the poor people.
    Thanks John for your thought provoking remarks. At least it speaks people here can think.


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