As Jewish Hospital struggles, so does its organ-transplant program, with bad implications for U of L and regional health care

Insider Louisville chart

Jewish Hospital’s pioneering transplant program is in trouble, and its demise could produce far-reaching repercussions” on the greater Louisville area, reports Boris Ladwig of Insider Louisville.

“Surgical teams have performed only one heart transplant in the first six months of the year, according to the most recently available data, running afoul of federal minimum requirements,” Ladwig reports. The program is also under threat that the hospital, which has been unable to find a buyer, might close altogether.

The transplant program is linked to the University of Louisville‘s hospital and its medical school. U of L told Ladwig that it would keep supporting the program, “either at Jewish or in another location.” That would require new certification from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, “which would take more than a year and cost the university millions of dollars,” Ladwig reports.

“Even more worrisome, the national consultant told Insider that an interruption of the transplant program could prompt an exodus of transplant surgeons, which could lead to departures of medical staff in transplant-related subspecialties,” Ladwig adds. “Those developments could jeopardize UofL Hospital’s status as a Level 1 trauma center [one of only two in the state], and cause it to lose medical residency spots.”

That helps explain “the increasing desperation with which university officials in the last few months have tried, so far in vain, to save the struggling Jewish Hospital, which, together with related facilities, has been losing more than $1 million per week.”

KentuckyOne Health, has been trying to sell Jewish and seven other facilities in Louisville, and Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, for more than two years. The university in December “tried to find a partner to acquire the properties, primarily to save Jewish Hospital,” but that failed, Ladwig notes.

U of L declined to comment on why the number of heart transplants has declined, but KentuckyOne blamed a national change in how hearts are allocated. The United Network for Organ Sharing told Insider that it changed the allocation policy in October, partly “to better identify the most medically urgent transplant candidates,” Ladwig reports.

That does not seem to have had as much impact on other transplant centers in the region. “The University of Kentucky Medical Center is on pace to perform 24 heart transplants this year, which would be a drop of 17 percent,” Ladwig reports. “Nationally, transplants are on pace to be down 12.6%.”

Other types of transplants “have seen a precipitous decline at Jewish Hospital,” Ladwig writes. “Kidney transplants are down 56%, liver transplants are down 29%. Both have fallen just 11% nationally. Only lung transplants at Jewish are in line with national declines.

Under the bylaws of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, “heart-transplant programs that fail to perform at least one transplant every three months are deemed to be functionally inactive,” Ladwig notes. “OPTN and UNOS manage the U.S. organ transplant network by contract with the federal government. The agency’s website lists no action against Jewish Hospital. UofL said it has not been notified by anyone to say the program is inactive or out of compliance.”

Dr. Peter Hasselbacher, an emeritus professor of medicine at U of L, “who has written extensively about the transplant program at Jewish,” told Ladwig that any heart-transplant program that does fewer than five a year “shouldn’t be doing any,” due to lack of practice.

“CMS guidelines call for transplant programs to perform 10 heart transplants over any 12-month period to retain certification,” Ladwig reports. “The agency could not be reached to explain what happens to programs that fail to meet that threshold.”

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