MVC Glitch Prevents Organ Donors from Signing Up When Renewing Licenses

Andrew Kitchenman | January 15, 2015 | Health Care
Problems with mail-in and online applications and renewals could ultimately cost lives, group warns

heart transplant
Think of it as a potentially lethal one-two punch. New Jerseyans who want to become organ donors are having their wishes ignored when they file driver’s license renewals by mail, according to representatives of the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network.

And residents who use the Motor Vehicle Commission’s website are discouraged from becoming donors because of an overly complex registration process, noted the New Providence-based network that handles donations in the state’s 14 northern and central counties.

“We’re concerned that people may be dying because we can’t get the right information out of the MVC registry,” said Joseph Roth, president and CEO of the donor network.

There are many factors that determine whether a person’s organs may be donated, including the donor’s health; condition of the organs at time of death; and whether the donor is a match for a transplant recipient. To put the matter in perspective, Roth indicates that more than 37,000 New Jersey deaths in 2014 were evaluated for potential organ donation, but there were only 125 organ donors in the state, Roth said.

While Roth and other network representatives complimented Gov. Chris Christie’s and MVC Chief Administrator Raymond P. Martinez’s advocacy for organ donations, there appears to be a disconnect between their support and the obstacles preventing some people from become donors.

Some 34 percent of New Jersey adults are registered as organ donors, which is the sixth-lowest percentage in the country, behind Vermont, Texas, New York, Mississippi, and South Carolina. It also trails the national average of 45 percent. National advocates want every state to have more than 50 percent of adults registered.

There are nearly 5,000 New Jersey residents waiting for an organ transplant.

The biggest obstacle can be traced to Skip the Trip, a program that makes it easier to renew driver’s licenses. While there is a box on the renewal form that asks whether a driver wants to be an organ donor, that information isn’t being recorded by the MVC, according to network officials.

“It is our job at New Jersey Sharing network to honor the donor’s wishes,” said Elisse Glennon, the foundation’s executive director. “We would like to see every registered organ donor’s wishes registered through the state registry.”

The network has volunteered to help process the applications or pay for processing, but is still in talks with the MVC over the offer, Roth said.

“I don’t know where the hang-up is,” Roth said, noting that other state agencies have accepted in-kind contributions in order to complete projects.

Glennon said the network has benefited from the work of 600 volunteers and thousands of families of organ donors who have died, but the obstacles have slowed progress.

“What’s frustrating to them and to us is that there seems to be a disconnect between the desire to be an organ donor and the ability to actually register in the state of New Jersey,” said Glennon, who noted that the network wasn’t consulted before the state implemented Skip the Trip.

In addition, those who want to directly apply to be donors through the MVC website are discouraged by an unnecessarily complex process. The site asks for applicants to establish a personal identification number and to submit their Social Security and driver’s license numbers. When they complete the electronic applications, they are asked to print them out and mail them to the MVC. Network officials said all of these steps are unnecessary and that the process could be streamlined.

“We don’t know how many people don’t [become organ donors] because of that process,” Roth said.

Another barrier is the absence of a question about organ donations on the applications for non-driver’s-license identification cards, which are also processed by the MVC. Glennon said this might have contributed to lower donor registration rates in cities, where the ID cards are most used.

Finally, the network has limited access to information on the donor registry. For example, on nights and weekends network workers can’t learn when a person registered to be a donor. This can complicate donation efforts when family members produce an advanced directive or another document that contradicts the donor card and it becomes unclear which document is more recent. MVC can provide this information during weekday business hours.

“They’re issues that all could be, in our view, fixed and it will raise the awareness and raise the donor registry in New Jersey, ultimately saving lives,” Glennon said.

Roth said the share of donors whose organs are in good enough shape to be used has been dropping in recent years, as residents have become less healthy. Causes range from the increased use of opiate drugs to unhealthy habits that contribute to what Roth described as the “New Jersey trifecta” of high blood pressure, diabetes and high body mass index.

David Fleming, president and CEO of Donate Life for America, a national organization that advocates for donations, said it’s rare that Americans have an opportunity to do something that can directly save another person’s life. Therefore, advocates and government officials have a responsibility to ensure that a system is in place to maximize organ donations, Fleming said.

He noted that polls that show that more than 90 percent of Americans have a positive view of organ donations. “You’re starting with a popularity standpoint that every one of you would like to have,” if launching an election campaign, Fleming said of the potential pool of donors.

Fleming offered to share with New Jersey officials practices that have been most effective in other states. One potential strategy is handing over operation of the registry to a third-party operator that would make the information accessible on nights and weekends.

Roth added one bright spot in organ donations in the state in recent years. The number of organs per donor that were used in transplants rose from 2.6 in 2009 to 3.15 in the last two years, he said.