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The Kidney Voucher Program

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerFebruary 7, 2018

What if your loved one had a disease that will destroy their kidney over time? What if you were a perfect match for blood and tissue type, but did not know when your organ would be required for a transplant? What if you were deceased, or too elderly or ill to donate your kidney when it was urgently needed?

This was the scenario experienced by retired Superior Court judge Howard Broadman, 68, of Visalia, California. His grandson was born with only one poorly functioning kidney and will most likely require a transplant in the future. Broadman is a perfect donor match for his grandson but has been left waiting in limbo until the time comes when his grandson will require a transplant. In the meantime, Broadman is still hoping to be able to donate.

What Is the Kidney Voucher Program?

It was this personal predicament that gave Broadman the idea for the Kidney Voucher ProgramDr. Jeffrey Veale, associate clinical professor of urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and director of the UCLA Kidney Exchange Program, explains,

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“Some potential kidney donors are incompatible with their intended recipient based on blood type; others may be incompatible based on time… the voucher program resolves this time incompatibility between the kidney transplant donor and recipient.”

The Kidney Voucher Program is a “delayed kidney swap” of sorts. An article published by UCLA Newsroom explains how the program works:

“The voucher donor gives a kidney to a stranger on dialysis. Often that recipient had a family member or friend who had wanted to be a donor but couldn’t due to incompatibility. Now that the person in need of a kidney has received the transplant and has been freed from dialysis, the family member or friend instead donates a kidney to another stranger, launching multiple transplant “chains” that essentially mix and match incompatible recipient/donor pairs with compatible ones. These chains are frequently initiated by altruistic donors who give a kidney to a stranger out of simple generosity.”

This article by Kaiser Health News explains that with a traditional transplant chain, each patient in the chain must have a “willing but incompatible donor” who matches someone else in need of a kidney and is willing to donate to that stranger. The Kidney Voucher Program takes this concept further “proposing that donors be able to give their organs in advance — essentially to save a person today so that a relative might be saved down the road.”

In 2014, Howard Broadman donated his kidney to a stranger in need and in exchange, his grandson received a voucher “that gives him priority to receive a live donor kidney, provided a match can be found when a transplant is necessary.” According to the UCLA Newsroom article, 30 hospitals in the United States participate in the voucher program and at least 21 kidneys have been donated in exchange for vouchers. The Kidney Voucher Program is now an active component of the National Kidney Registry.

Reasons to Donate to the Program

In addition to the altruistic reasons to donate, there are several practical reasons to give to the Kidney Voucher Program as well, including:

  • Age: Most donors are 70 years old or younger and may not be able to donate as they age (although, new research does suggest that healthy people over 70 can safely donate).
  • Assurance: The article by Kaiser Health News explains that the voucher is earmarked and issued to a specific person, who is the only one who can use it, making it unlikely to be bought or sold.
  • Backup plan: It is not uncommon for a donated kidney to fail and an average donated kidney has a lifespan of 10-12 years.
  • Health: A healthy person may not be well enough to donate down the road when the kidney is needed.
  • It helps the whole system: Every time someone gets a live kidney, that moves someone else up on the donor list. The UCLA Newsroom article reports that three kidney voucher cases led to 25 transplants across the United States.

Kaiser Health News suggests that for some donors, the complex surgery required to donate a kidney can put them at risk without benefiting their loved ones. While the Kidney Voucher Program gives priority to the voucher holder, they are not guaranteed a compatible kidney when the time comes.

This possibility aside, the Kidney Voucher Program is a “game-changer” allowing people to donate now while they are eligible and healthy.

It is also working to reduce the burden of dialysis, reduce wait lists and provide people with kidney disease a new hope for the future.

Would you consider donating to the Kidney Voucher Program now to give a loved one a better chance at a kidney in the future? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
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