BY JESSICA BLACKBURN
The American Red Cross, a non-profit organization, does not pay their donors, but they do sell the blood they collect.
Red Cross Communications Manager Christy Peters said, “I wouldn’t be able to speak to why donors would be paid.”
For many donors and people thinking about donating, it may not be common knowledge that the Red Cross is selling their donated blood.
On the official American Red Cross website, the ‘What Happens to Donated Blood’ outline implies that the distribution to hospitals is being given away freely and simply states under the ‘Distribution’ heading: “Blood is available to be shipped to hospitals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
On the American Red Cross’ website under Donation FAQs, there is the question ‘What does the Red Cross do with my blood?’ The response provided is: “The blood will be delivered to a Red Cross blood component laboratory where it is processed into several components (e.g., red blood cells, plasma, platelets and/or cryoprecipitate). A single blood donation may help up to three different people.”
Blood is sold to hospitals, biomedical companies, academic centers, and pharmaceutical companies, according to Laura McGuire, external communications manager at the Red Cross. There are 88 counties in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan that the American Red Cross Badger-Hawkeye Blood Services Region serves, and there are 31 hospitals serviced in the region, said McGuire.
“We operate on a cost recovery basis, not profit,” said Peters. “We supply approximately 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply. In order to recover the cost of recruiting blood donors and testing of blood, we recover that cost by being reimbursed by hospitals.”
The Red Cross spends that money on recruiting donors, testing blood and paying staff, said Peters.
The members of Circle K, an Edgewood College service organization, try to host a blood drive twice a year, but Edgewood parking regulations make that hard.
Former Secretary of Circle K, Madeline Yeiser called the American Red Cross’ practice of selling blood “a means to an end.”
Felicia Blaeske from Circle K said, “After we have hosted a blood drive, it is in the hands of those who run the American Red Cross. We understand that they also need to make a profit to continue their efforts, however, because it is a donation, it poses an ethical dilemma if American Red Cross then turns around and sells it.”
The American Red Cross hasn’t been without scandals over the years. According to ProPublica, the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars for Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010, yet they only built six permanent homes in the wake of the disaster. A 2015 ProPublica article said, “The Red Cross won’t disclose details of how it has spent the hundreds of millions of dollars donated for Haiti. But our reporting shows that less money reached those in need than the Red Cross has said.”
At the time, the Red Cross was in crisis. “Other groups also ran into trouble with land titles and other issues,” said Justin Elliott from ProPublica and Laura Sullivan from National Public Radio. “But they also ultimately built 9,000 homes compared to the Red Cross’ six.”
The Red Cross used 25 percent, or almost $125 million, of their donations for Haiti to sort out internal issues, according to NPR, although the official Red Cross website states: “. . . An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in our humanitarian services and programs.”
Many plasma companies sell their plasma also, but they pay their donors with prepaid Visa cards. “. . . The base rate is about $65 a week for two visits at about an hour,” said Samantha Fredricks, former employee at BioLife Plasma Services in Janesville.
General Manager Pam Thompson from BioLife Plasma Services in Janesville declined to answer questions and would provide “no specific details about where (their) plasma goes.”
Robert Mitchell, director of marketing and corporate communication with CSL Plasma, said CSL Plasma does not sell the plasma it collects. “It is used by our parent company, CSL Behring, to manufacture drugs that cannot be made from any other source.
“We are using the plasma from our donors to purify antibodies and other specific proteins that are used to treat rare, debilitating diseases like immune deficiency, hemophilia, and also for burn victims and in surgical procedures. In contrast, blood banks like Red Cross and community blood centers sell the whole blood and other cellular products to the local hospitals…”
Mitchell said CSL Plasma’s parent company does sell the finished pharmaceuticals to distributors and hospitals.
The plasma industry has been criticized. “I think some people have a stigma against donating plasma (and think) that it’s for drug users to get money, and poor people, which isn’t the case,” said Fredricks. “BioLife is in the business of saving people’s lives, and they truly do. It’s a wonderful thing people do, and, yeah, they get a little something in return.”
The compensation for plasma isn’t meant to deter donors who might think plasma donating is shady. “The demands for blood and plasma are very different and cannot be described in a simple comparison,” said Mitchell. “Blood demand has decreased in the U.S. and Europe over the last several years because of advances in surgery techniques that are less invasive and require fewer units for transfusion.
“The demand for plasma for manufacturing into pharmaceutical products has increased as new treatments are developed and as more patients with rare diseases are diagnosed around the world. The patient’s needs for life saving treatments are what drive the demand for plasma.”
People say the money may lead to donors lying about their health. A former long-time donor at Interstate Blood & Plasma in Madison said he lied about using pot, but claimed he did not lie about other drug use.
Dishonesty may still be prevalent. “This is monitored by the vigilance of the medical staff and the other staff,” said Mitchell. “Staff are trained to pick up on any sign of a problem or change in medical condition and report it to medical staff on site to investigate.”
The plasma industry takes safety very seriously and tests hematocrit and protein levels each time, he said. At the first donation and then every four months, donors are tested for syphilis. “Infectious disease tests are performed for safety of the product,” said Mitchell. “. . . If there is any concern about the donor’s ability to participate safely, the donor is deferred.”