Blood Money: what you didn't know about your blood donation

High prices; waste among top issues, insider says

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Did you know that your blood is part of a billion-dollar business that's bought, sold, and at times, even thrown away?

"I did not know that," said long time donor Clifton Lynch.

Lynch also didn't know that people like Ben Bowman make a living off his donation.

"I would guess 99% of people don't know that blood is sold," explains Bowman, CEO of General Blood, a national for-profit blood brokerage firm.

Bowman is surprisingly candid about what has, historically, been a little known, rarely talked about part of the blood donor industry.  Bowman believes it's time for the industry to be more transparent with the public.

The Contact 5 Investigators asked Bowman what the going rate of blood is right now.

"It depends on where you live. In Miami-Dade/Broward you're probably looking at about $200 for a pint whereas one of our associates just got back from Seattle and said parts of Seattle are paying $600 for the same pint," he explained.

Like any product, he says, higher prices on the front end trickle down.

"Over time, that cost calculates into what the insurer is willing to pay. So, indirectly, the cost is passed on to the consumer," he said.

For an industry whose safety standards are carefully scrutinized and governed by the feds, Bowman says, the business of blood remains highly unregulated and surprisingly inefficient.

"It shouldn't matter if you live in Seattle or Miami or Minneapolis or Boston. The price should be relatively fair," said Bowman.

Bowman's company often competes for hospital business with groups, like One Blood.  The organization is South Florida's largest not-for-profit blood center.

But ask One Blood what it charges those hospitals per pint, "Uh, that's confidential," said Pat Michaels, spokesperson for One Blood.  "Because of the competitive nature of our business, we can't report on that particular part."

One Blood calls its prices a reimbursement fee for the cost to operate, process and test donations.

"There's a fee but you have to understand that that's the way all blood centers operate," explained Michaels.

Bowman says, its these kinds of blood secrets that taint the entire blood business.

"I think most Americans would accept the fact that there's a value chain and that people deserve to get paid.  That needs to be more transparent," he said.

Selling blood isn't the industry's only rarely talked about fact.

Blood donated locally doesn't always stay local.

"The local needs are first, if its needed in an outside area like nationally, we'll strive to help," explained Michaels who also says the organization primarily serves more than 200 hospitals around the state as well as hospitals in Georgia and Alabama.

Another little known fact about the blood donation industry: not every unit collected is used.

"There is a lot of waste in the industry," explains Bowman.

Whole human blood has a shelf life of 42 days, but in a 2011 government sponsored national survey, researchers found, an estimated one in 20 units of donated blood was thrown away.

The Contact 5 Investigators asked One Blood how that could happen.

"I don't know about that. I can't comment on that," answered Michaels. 

Donors like Clifton Lynch didn't know all the facts behind the journey of his donation.

"I didn't know it was sold, I didn't know that,"

He says, he'll continue to give now, knowing the chance to save a life is still a matter of business.

The federal government recognizes that the entire blood industry needs to tighten up. Next year researchers will, once again, study how often blood donations are used and thrown away.

In response to the national government survey which found that, an estimated 1 in 20 units of donated blood is thrown away, One Blood offered the following statement:

"We strive to maximize each donation and take great care to ensure every unit is used to its fullest potential.  Safety of the blood supply is our top priority.  If a unit of blood does not meet the Food and Drug Administration's guidelines we are required by FDA to discard the unit. If a unit of blood is discarded it is primarily due to a positive test result during the testing phase or issues during processing."

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

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