For-profit eye donation bank raises concerns in Wisconsin

Posted at 10:02 PM, Jul 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-27 23:32:43-04

A new organization just came to the state and is changing the landscape of the donation system.  Traditional eye banks across the country are non-profit, but this new one has a "for profit" twist.

The Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin has handled cornea donations for almost 50 years. Now there's some concern this new eye bank in the state will affect people's decision to donate.

Emily Lyons signed up to be a donor when she was only 16. Her mom, Dawn Lyons-Wood told us "she always had a giving heart, since she was little."  Emily's freshman year in college she was in a snowmobile accident.  "We were finally informed she didn't have any brain activity," Dawn shared.

The one positive to come out of so much loss was Emily's gift of life, "it was very important to us that Emily's eyes were donated," her mom said.  Emily wanted to be an optometrist and was active in the Lions Club through UW LaCrosse.  The organization's mission is to preserve sight. Emily's family learned through a letter she gave the gift of sight to two people in Wisconsin. 

Emily's donation was handled by the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin or LEBW.  A non-profit it was the only eye bank in the state.  That changed in June when an organization called SightLife came into Wisconsin.  LEBW's Executive Director, Darice Langham told us, "it's very unfortunate for the local non-profit system that's been in place for so long."  Langham said she was alarmed to learn SightLife created a for-profit arm last year, "a lot of skepticism throughout the eye banking community about what the true end road is."

Most of the corneas LEBW handled last year were transplanted in Wisconsin. Once all needs were met the additional corneas went to other states and then overseas. 

SightLife is shipping all donated corneas out of state to be part of a pool used by surgeons across the U.S. Langham called it a loss for donor families, "to know somebody just up the road can see today,  because of their loved one.  And their legacy lives on that way."

The BloodCenter of Wisconsin is the organization designated by the federal government to oversee the transplant system in 12 counties.  It has worked with LEBW for years. Last month the BloodCenter announced its new partnership with SightLife.

'It is our heavy, heavy responsibility to maintain the public trust in donation,"the center's Vice President of Organ and Tissue Donation, Colleen McCarthy, told us.  She believes the partnership will improve corneal donation in the state.  "The expertise and the resources SightLife has, because they work with so many organizations, brings resources and new knowledge to us."

According to SightLife CEO, Monty Montoya, this is about giving everyone in the world access to the gift of sight.  "We can appreciate that it's different and that it's new," Montoya told us.  SightLife calls itself the world's largest provider of donated corneas and part of the transplant process includes the organization's for profit arm, SightLife Surgical.  Montoya pointed out that subsidiary drives innovation and generates the money needed to achieve the goal of ending corneal blindness worldwide.  "In these countries, helping them to run efficient and effective eye bank and cornea transplant systems, so we increase the access."

But donor mom, Dawn, feels a loyalty to Wisconsin and is not sure about this new approach to donation, "you just assume everything is non-profit."

SightLife currently operates in 8 states, which now includes Wisconsin. The organization says local needs will always be met first.  Last year 55% of SightLife's corneas were transplanted in the U.S, 45% internationally.  So far the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner and three hospitals, including Children's, have broken ties with LEBW and will be working only with SightLife.

do families have a choice when it comes to what organization handles its loved ones' donation?

Families do have a choice when it comes to what organization handles their loved ones' donation.  You can designate the eye bank of your choice and also make the request to work with a non-profit only.

Register to become an organ, tissue and eye donor at the Wisconsin Donor Registry.