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EDITORIAL: Federal agency removes roadblock that prevented paying bone marrow donors

At this moment, there are more than 11,000 Americans in need of a bone marrow transplant. A mere 30 percent of those who need a transplant find matching donors in their families, which leaves the remaining 70 percent to hope that they’ll find a compatible stranger on the national bone marrow registry.

Finding a match can be tough, however, as only 2 percent of the population have volunteered with the registry, and a significant number of those cannot be found — or simply refuse to donate — when it’s time to do so.

For years, doctors, researchers and patients pushed to compensate bone marrow donors in order to raise the numbers of possible matches on the registry — and, in turn, to save lives. In 2012, the Institute for Justice won a federal court victory on behalf of the nation’s cancer patients, paving the way for paying those who donate blood stem cells, commonly known as bone marrow.

In 2013, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama proposed a rule that would bar compensation and sought public comment. The public was overwhelmingly opposed to the ban, and on Aug. 1 HHS withdrew the proposal. But while the creation of compensated donor programs could save thousands of cancer patients’ lives, thousands may have already needlessly died because of the government’s delay.

According to the Institute, leukemia (a blood cancer) will strike 44,000 Americans — including 3,500 children — this year. The disease will kill roughly half of those adults, and about 700 of the children. All told, nearly 3,000 patients die each year because they can’t find a matching bone marrow donor.

Under the now-void HHS rule, compensating bone marrow donors was on par with someone selling a kidney, which could bring as much as a five-year sentence in federal prison. But that was ridiculous. New technologies make it much easier and safer for donors, and the process is now akin to donating plasma, for which people are paid every day.

The agency’s decision to back down is simple common sense. Let’s hope the development will jump-start the creation of compensation programs and encourage more people to sign up as donors, helping save thousands of lives in the process.

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