NEW YORK (WABC) -- The 7 On Your Side Investigates team has obtained internal emails from the federally designated organization responsible for obtaining organs from dead and dying patients in New York, which show the agency gave bonuses to its employees this year after obtaining a certain number of organs, new organ donors and musculoskeletal tissue donors in 2022.
Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne obtained several emails which were sent by LiveOnNY CEO Leonard Achan to his staff in 2022 regarding the agency's "employee incentive bonus program."
LiveOnNY is a non-profit required by the federal government to obtain organs from deceased patients in New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Orange, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties. Hospitals pay LiveOn for the organs and tissue LiveOn obtains. The hospitals are then reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance.
Achan, who joined LiveOnNY as CEO in October 2021, said in an email to his staff June 10, 2022, "I am pleased to announce an employee incentive bonus program whereby all staff (excluding Sr Directors and above) are eligible for up to a 5% bonus directly aligned with honoring our donors and donor families while changing and saving more lives that's ever before."
Achan said the agency "must meet or exceed all the following stretch goals noted below." He then described the goals as 1,300 organs transplanted, 450 organ donors and 700 musculoskeletal tissue donors.
Eyewitness News spoke with a former LiveOn employee who worked at the organization in 2022. She was terminated. She asked that we not reveal her identity, as she feared she may lose her current job.
"If we reached that number and when I say reached like down to December 31st, they were pressing, especially allocation, to get these organs and kidneys donated because we needed a few more," she said.
LiveOn said it would not discuss its compensation with Eyewitness News, but we obtained an email Achan sent to his staff in January congratulating the agency on meeting its goals.
"In keeping with my June 10, 2022 promise, Executive leadership has decided that all employees with start dates prior to October 2022 shall receive the maximum 5% bonus," he wrote. "All those eligible employees included in this plan should expect to receive this incentive bonus in the January 20th payroll."
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) which regulates the country's 58 organ procurement organizations, or OPOs, like LiveOnNY, considers LiveOn a low-performing OPO. CMS classifies LiveOnNY as a Tier 3 OPO, partially because of its low organ numbers.
Eyewitness News asked CMS about the employee bonuses at LiveOnNY to which the agency responded in a statement, "While Medicare Conditions for Coverage do penalize OPO's that procure too few organs, we carefully describe in our regulatory guidance the actions and methods that OPO's should utilize in their endeavors to procure organs. CMS does not encourage employee bonuses, but we do not comment on business practices and processes that are outside of our regulatory authority."
Eyewitness News spoke with six former LiveOnNY employees who talked about the immense pressure they say they felt at the organization to obtain organs. All the workers were terminated within the last year. Only two of the workers were willing to go on-camera.
"The goal is to try to get every, every patient to be a donor," said a man, who asked not to be identified, who worked at LiveOn for more than a decade, but was fired last summer for poor job performance. His job was to get families to consent to organ donation for their dying or dead loved ones.
"A lot of times families are not ready," he said. "They're just hearing about the death sometimes, or they're processing, and they want us to talk to families right away."
Both the former workers who conducted interviews with Eyewitness News confirmed they received the bonuses from LiveOn.
The former LiveOnNY workers contacted Eyewitness News after seeing our story in July on Myriam Hoyos de Baldrich, a woman from Long Island who in 2022 was an unidentified patient at Bellevue Hospital when her organs were removed and donated.
Eyewitness News obtained paperwork which showed LiveOnNY as well as Bellevue signed off on the procedure. The hospital system said later in court papers that it was the responsibility of LiveOn to identify Hoyos de Baldrich. LiveOn told us it was the hospital's responsibility.
Eyewitness News first reached out to LiveOn in September about the former workers' allegations regarding the pressure they say they felt to secure organs.
The organization declined to do an interview, but issued a statement saying, "There are no 'numbers' in LiveOnNY's priorities. There are only donated organs and tissues, each with the potential to save or improve a life. Much of what we do can be immensely difficult work that is physically, mentally and emotionally taxing. It takes dedication, strength and clarity of vision to pursue LiveOnNY's lifesaving goals. We want each member of our team to be committed to these goals."
LiveOn confirmed that in 2022, LiveOn helped get 1,300 organs transplanted to those on the state waitlist and secured 961 tissue donors.
"Selfless decisions by organ and tissue donor heroes and their families made 2022 LiveOnNY's most successful year ever for the number of organs transplanted into patients on the waiting list," the agency said in a statement. "The organization's staff worked hand in hand with New York's hospital leaders, physicians, nurses and transplant centers led by world-renowned surgeons and their staff, as well as emergency services and critical care staff across New York. This resulted in the residents of the greater New York City area generously donating more organs than ever before in the organization's history to save lives across the region."
Eyewitness News also obtained an email Achan sent to LiveOn employees in March 2022, which said workers would be eligible to receive a cost of living (COLA) raise each year as long as the prior year's budget goals had been met, which include the organization obtaining a certain number of organs, new organ donors and musculoskeletal tissue donors.
"I am pleased to announce today that with the exception of Executive Leadership (Vice Presidents and above), anyone who has been hired or promoted since December 1st 2021 or those who recently had their base salary raised as a result of the recent salary study (where COLA was already included) all other employees will receive a 3% percent (sic) increase to their base pay as a 2022 'Cost of Living Adjustment' (COLA)," Achan wrote in the March 3, 2022 email.
"While this is approved for 2022, a COLA will only be considered each year as long as the prior year's budget goals have been met. Our budget goals align with our goals for honoring, changing and saving as many lives as possible which in 2022 includes honoring the precious gifts from 450 Organ Donors resulting in at least 1200 transplanted organs to those on the waiting list and honoring life altering 600 muscularskeletal (sic) tissue donors this year," he wrote.
After obtaining the internal emails, Eyewitness News tried for more than a month to secure an interview with Achan to discuss the agency's bonus structure. LiveOnNY never returned our many emails, phone calls and text messages. We asked the agency if bonuses are being offered to employees in 2024 for organs, musculoskeletal tissue and new donors secured this year, but they did not respond.
Eyewitness News reached out to the nation's 58 OPOs to see if they offer bonuses, similar to LiveOnNY. The only OPOs we heard back from - only five of them - said they do not offer bonuses.
Steve Miller, the CEO of the Association of Organ Procurement Organizations (AOPO) told Eyewitness News, "Each organ procurement organization (OPO) establishes its own compensation structure to recognize their employees for their dedication to advancing the mission of saving lives through organ donation and transplantation. OPOs prioritize donors and donor families, providing them with the compassionate care they need to turn a tragedy into a gift of life for others. AOPO and every OPO are guided by the mission of saving as many lives as possible through organ donation and transplantation."
Nearly 8,000 people are currently on the organ waiting list in New York. According to Donate Life New York State, 447 New Yorkers died last year because the organs they needed were not donated in time. The group says one organ donor can save up to eight lives.
Click here to learn more about organ donation.
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