The high out-of-pocket cost of donating a kidney

DATE: August 4, 2023

By Martha Gershun
STAT News, Opinion

“All of your medical and surgical expenses will be paid by your recipient’s insurance,” the nurse coordinator at the Mayo Clinic told me. Naïve, I nodded into the phone at this reassurance. I had already worked with her to have several vials of my blood shipped from my home in Kansas City to Mayo in Rochester, Minnesota, all at no cost to me. Now she was calling to tell me the astounding news: Tests on that blood had revealed I was a perfect match for Deb Porter Gill, a kidney patient I had read about in the newspaper two months before.

“But insurance will not pay for your travel or other non-medical expenses,” the nurse coordinator continued. “There are some sources of assistance we can discuss, but if you don’t qualify, you will have to pay for those yourself.”

I continued to nod. Of course we would pay whatever travel costs we incurred to donate this kidney. I was going to save a life. We could hardly put a price on that.

Five years have now passed since I donated my kidney, and both Deb and I are doing well. I co-authored a book about my experience as an altruistic living kidney donor and have spoken at more than 30 universities, bioethics centers, medical conferences, and transplant clinics. The more I have learned about living kidney donation, the more I have come to question how cavalierly I accepted that I would have to pay actual cash to do that good deed.

My husband and I are comfortable financially. We could afford the $5,000 in gasoline, hotels, and food for the 19 nights we spent travelling to the Mayo Clinic for my medical evaluation, surgery, recovery, and six-month follow-up visit. Our children are grown and our parents are gone, so we had no child care or elder care expenses (though we did have to pay a cat sitter for the time we travelled). And neither of us had to forgo any wages: At 61, I had already retired from paid work, and the generous PTO policy at the nonprofit where my husband was CEO covered the 128 hours of work he missed to travel with me and help with my recovery.

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