A transplant surgeon carefully wraps up a donated liver with the help of physician assistant after preparing it for transplantation into a patient. (PHOTO by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Photo: Carolyn Cole
Photo: Carolyn Cole

DEEPER FINDINGS: Transplant policy caught in legal tangle in Georgia federal court

The legal battle over which transplant patients receive new livers is a roller coaster this week, after the federal government refused to halt a new program for reallocating the organs in spite of a federal judge’s order.

There are not enough donated livers in the U.S. for all the patients who need them, and Georgia and Midwestern hospitals are battling to stop a new allocation formula that they say will redirect livers away from them. But the new system went into effect Tuesday despite their efforts to fight it in court.

Wednesday evening, however, it appeared they’d won a reprieve.

READ THE FULL STORY: Fight over livers “devastating,” judge orders temporary halt

Judge Amy Totenberg of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, who is overseeing the case, agreed with the Georgia and Midwestern patients’ request for a temporary halt, saying that for her to issue an order “that effectively maintains the pre May 14, 2019 status quo” wouldn’t hurt either side, and that further rollout of the new policy would only complicate matters.

“I’m so excited,” Dr. Harrison Pollinger, a Georgia doctor who believed the long-standing system was once again in place, said Wednesday evening. Pollinger is a transplant doctor at Piedmont who has three patients so sick they’re waiting for new livers in hospital beds.

On Thursday, though, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the organization that put together the new allocation plan, the United Network for Organ Sharing, filed their response.

Since the judge’s order tells the government to stop “further efforts and/or conduct aimed at continued implementation,” the government lawyers wrote, they “hereby notify the Court that they are in compliance with the Order.”

There was no further rollout actions or efforts to be stopped, they said; the new system was completely in place.

“There are no further actions or ‘efforts’ that are necessary,” they said.

Just in case they misunderstood, the government said, they invited the judge to clarify her ruling. And if she does want them to restore the long-standing system, they say it will take four weeks.

The idea behind the new allocation system is to get the few available livers to the sickest patients. Advocates of the new system say it will be fairer and save lives. Georgia doctors say the government has used flawed data, and that the new system will result in the loss of some donated livers due to longer travel delays.

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