Alaska Law Change Helps Kidney Donation

Alaska State Rep. Richard Foster won't run afoul of state law after the legislature voted to do away with a $250 limit on compassionate gifts. In this case, the gift is a kidney, to be donated by a legislative staffer. Melissa Block talks with Alaska State Rep. John Coghill, who sponsored the change.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.

Alaska State Representative Richard Foster will be getting a kidney transplant without running a foul of the law. That's after the Alaska State Legislature voted to do away with a limit on compassionate gifts. In this case, the gift is a kidney, to be donated by a legislative staffer.

State Rep. John Coghill of North Pole, Alaska joins us to explain. Thanks for being with us.

State Representative JOHN COGHILL (Republican, North Pole, Alaska): Yes. Thank you.

BLOCK: And let's talk a bit about how this all started. It's your colleague, Richard Foster, he has a genetic kidney disease, needs a transplant. Who figured out that that was going to be an ethical problem?

State Rep. COGHILL: Well, we passed an ethics law last year, and we put limits on gifts from lobbyists, and we were doing a conforming amendment. And I think this conforming amendment in this particular compassionate gift area was really an unintended consequence. And it really didn't come to light until after it was put into law. And somebody was asking about actually donating their kidney to Representative Foster. And the ethics committee came to us and said, you can't do that.

BLOCK: Really?

State Rep. COGHILL: And I think that everybody in the legislature was shocked. But it was very a tight limitation. It's said that a legislator or legislative employee may not solicit, accept or receive, directly or indirectly, compassionate gifts worth less than 250 - that in a calendar year aggregate to $250 or more in value.

So the question was do we want that limit on there or not? You know, you can't charge for a kidney. You can donate a kidney, but you can't - but the medical cost, the transportation cost, and - are part of what this person wanted to donate.

BLOCK: So it'd be the value of that. Not the kidney itself, but everything around the donation.

State Rep. COGHILL: Right. And, of course, the intention was never to limit the gifts. So we took the $250 limit off that was just signed into law and everybody was grateful. It was a big hurrah, you know. But these gifts still have to be reported anyway. So if anybody wants to know who's donating, if there's any other ethical questions, all they have to do is go on to our public offices commission site and take a look who's donating the money.

BLOCK: Tell me a bit about Richard Foster.

State Rep. COGHILL: Richard Foster is one of the characters here in the legislature. He's from Nome. He's brought up in a gold miner's home. He still does gold mining. But he is one that doesn't speak much, but when he does, everybody listens. And probably one of the things that we miss most right now is when somebody in the legislative body has a birthday, he usually will give them what we'd call a roast. He would stand up and speak about them respectfully and add a little humor. And then, we'll all stand up and sing happy birthday.

So he brings a lot of cheerfulness as well as a lot folkishness(ph) to the legislature.

BLOCK: You miss him because he's not there, you know, with you. Now, he's, I believe, in rehab in Seattle.

State Rep. COGHILL: We do miss him. Many of us are praying for him. We look forward to the day when he comes back to us healthy. We anticipate that his kidney will go well. We want him to go through his physical therapy, though, so - and I think having him down there and having the doctors make him go through that is probably a good thing right now.

BLOCK: Any idea when he might be getting that transplant?

State Rep. COGHILL: I think it will happen after the session. So we'll get out and the middle of April. And after that, they can do the preparation work for the transplant. And I think at that point, physical therapy being what it is, he'll be in very good shape to receive it.

BLOCK: Well, it sounds like everybody there wants him to get that transplant done.

State Rep. COGHILL: Yes. We're all pulling for him.

BLOCK: Well, John Coghill, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

State Rep. COGHILL: Thank you very much for calling. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: John Coghill is a state representative from North Pole, Alaska.

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