A prominent U.S. senator is broadening his investigation into problems at organ transplant centers around the nation, asking why authorities failed to detect problems in the liver program at UCI Medical Center.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he is concerned that regulators did virtually nothing for more than three years after the UC Irvine hospital began failing to meet federal Medicare standards.
UCI closed its liver transplant program last month, after the Medicare program decided it would no longer pay for the operations because the hospital was not performing enough liver transplants to maintain proficiency.
The revocation came the same day The Times reported that 32 patients on UCI's liver waiting list had died since 2004 while the program turned down scores of organs that might have saved them.
"Although UCI claimed that it refused most of the organs because they were of poor quality, it appears that the real reason may have been a lack of capacity to perform transplants due to personnel problems," Grassley wrote in a letter Tuesday to Elizabeth Duke, administrator of the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, one of the agencies responsible for overseeing organ transplantation nationally.
UCI had not had a full-time liver transplant surgeon for more than a year when it closed the program.
"It appears that patients almost certainly died, whether because an organ that could have been transplanted was refused, or because the transplant team was out of practice due to the low volume of transplants," Grassley wrote.
He asked if Duke's agency or the United Network for Organ Sharing, which runs the organ procurement and distribution system under contract with the government, "did anything to ensure that those patients had the same chance to receive a liver transplant as other patients on the wait list" at other hospitals.
David Bowman, a spokesman for the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, said the agency would try to address Grassley's concerns "very soon." The United Network for Organ Sharing said it is cooperating with Grassley's review.
UCI has created a task force to study what went wrong with the liver program and has placed Dr. Ralph Cygan, the hospital's chief executive, on paid leave during the inquiry.
Grassley began his investigation on organ transplants this fall after St. Vincent Medical Center suspended its liver transplant program. The Los Angeles hospital acknowledged that its doctors misappropriated an organ in a serious violation of national standards. It has subsequently closed the program.
In his letter, Grassley said he was still not satisfied with the explanations given him about why it took two years to catch the breach.