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Arizona cuts in transplant coverage spark outrage

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Arizona transplant funding reduced
  • Arizona lawmakers making life and death decisions, says a patient taken off transplant list
  • Cuts in state's Medicaid funding have created "death panels," says Democratic lawmaker
  • Ninety-eight people were taken off the list for Medicaid funding for a life-saving transplant
  • Two of those people have died

(CNN) -- Two people have already died in Arizona and another 96 are waiting for a life-saving transplant they may no longer be able to afford after the state slashed money reserved for the procedures.

One lawmaker said Arizona is now home to "death panels." And those whose names were on the list, those who will surely die without a transplant, found themselves in a state of disbelief.

"It's a shock to me," said Randall Shepherd, who thought he would receive Medicaid funding for the heart transplant he needs.

"There's a bit of a personal loss and the realization that this could be me in time if something's not changed here," Shepherd said, referring to the two who have died. "Until I get a new heart, my life is in a holding pattern."

Shepherd, like many others outraged by the state decision to slash $1.2 million from the state's Medicaid funding, said he believes the cuts could have come from elsewhere. Nonetheless, he said he understands the reasoning behind the decision.

"It's obvious. If the state's broke, it is broke," he said. "I can kick and scream all I want, and if there's no money for a transplant, it is just not going to happen.

"I really feel bad for the governor, for the legislators, those who had to make this decision," he said. "I certainly wouldn't want to be in their shoes and making the call that results in somebody else living or dying."

Arizona's Senate Minority Leader-elect David Schapira, a Democrat from Tempe, said he will seek emergency restoration of Medicaid coverage for certain kinds of transplants.

"I would like to alert people in the rest of the country that we have death panels right here in Arizona, and those who cut this funding and refuse to restore it are the death panels," Schapira said.

He was referring to Gov. Jan Brewer and her fellow Republicans who now hold a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers. Schapira called Brewer "a one-person death panel."

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said Schapira hasn't advanced a workable plan to resolve Arizona's budget crisis.

"The minority leader has yet to produce a single proposal to resolve Arizona's massive Medicaid deficit, only this empty rhetoric, despite being asked for over a year to submit a plan that might succeed and garner support," Senseman told CNN in a statement.

Schapira, however, said Friday that he has offered the governor "10, if not 20 options" of other programs and services that could be cut.

"People's lives are at stake at this point," he said," and we've really got put politics aside."

In all, 98 patients were denied a transplant, Schapira said. One of them, who needed a new liver, died last week.

Another patient, Mark Price, who needed a bone marrow transplant, died in November from complications from chemotherapy, Schapira said. He also linked Price's death to the budget cuts.

"The fact of the matter is that there are 96 or 97 people living right now that as far as we know would benefit from life-saving transplants. There are very few opportunities in government where we can save lives, and this is one of them," Schapira said.

Tucson's University Medical Center confirmed Thursday the death last week of a male patient who was denied a place on the liver transplant list because of the state budget cuts, said Jo Marie Gellerman, director of community affairs for the University of Arizona department of surgery, which is affiliated with the hospital.

The man, whose identity was not released, died December 28. He had hepatitis C, one of the categories no longer eligible for state Medicaid-funded transplants as of October 1, Gellerman said.

"This person was on the transplant list for a liver and was delisted because of the (state Medicaid) guideline changes," or budget cuts, Gellerman said.

Schapira blamed the death on cuts in transplant funding, which, he said, also meant the loss of $2.4 million in federal matching funds. He called upon the governor to use federal stimulus money to replace the transplant budget cut.

"Lives are being lost over politics," Schapira said. "As far as we know, this most recent death on December 28 was due to the fact this person did not receive a liver transplant because of the cuts made by the Republican leadership in the Arizona Legislature and signed into law by the governor.

"Health care in Arizona right now is Brewercare," Schapira said.

In the meantime, those who were taken off the transplant list are trying to figure out how to cope. Randall Shepherd said he worried especially for his children.

"They know dad's sick and dad needs a heart," he said. "My wife and I want them to have as normal a childhood as they can. We don't want them involved in the politics of it or thinking at any moment we could come home and dad won't be there."

So, he said, he's trying to raise the $120,000 it will cost for a heart transplant. And trying to get life back to normal.

CNN's Michael Martinez contributed to this report.