Debating Organ Donor Compensation

Maria Olivera hopes she will be able to watch her young grandchildren grow into adulthood, but unless she gets a new liver, she may not have the chance.

Olivera, 57, of New York, has been waiting for an organ donor for five years.

Like any grandmother, she wants to see her grandchildren "go to graduation, maybe get married." If she lives to see that, then Olivera says she'll be "old enough to be ready to go."

But if she has to die sooner, Olivera says she's simply "not ready."

Running Out of Time

Dr. Lewis Teperman, director of transplantation at New York University Medical Center, says there are about 7,000 liver transplants done in the United States a year. However, there are "about 20,000 people waiting, and most of those people die," he says.

That's why Teperman advocates offering the relatives of a deceased donor a thank you in the form of a monetary gift — to cover funeral expenses.

Teperman says the small gift could offer a subtle, inoffensive incentive to would-be donors and their families.

"It is time to … give a small amount of money for a funeral expense," Teperman says, "let's say $500 that would be given directly to funeral home for everyone who donates."

Federal law prevents the sale of organs, and until recently even talking about any kind of monetary compensation was taboo. But while transplantations have a 90 percent success rate, there is a dearth of donors.

"Because of the very dismal numbers of organ donors that we have in the country, I think people are beginning to say, wait a minute, you know, let's think a little bit more out of the box. Let's look at things that we have stopped looking at," says Elaine Berg, director of the New York Organ Donor Network.

Pennsylvania's Test Program

Pennsylvania has started testing a gift-giving program. The state awards money to a living donor or to the family of a deceased donor — money that can be used for reimbursement of food and lodging expenses incurred during the donation process.

The money for the program comes from a voluntary fund to which Pennsylvania residents can contribute.

It's still too early to tell if the program has inspired more people to become organ donors, but this week, the American Medical Association will be discussing this approach and others like it — a debate that could someday lead to a change in policy.

And could someday lead to more donors for people like Maria Olivera. "When you die, you no longer need your parts, so if you can donate them, you are bringing somebody else life, and that is a powerful thing," she says.

Lauren Glassberg from ABCNEWS affiliate WABC-TV contributed to this report.