L.A. Coroner To Stop Quietly Harvesting Corneas

LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles County coroner's office, responding to reports of ethical breaches and procedural lapses, announced yesterday that it would no longer routinely permit a local eye bank to harvest corneas without the permission or knowledge of surviving family members.

"The department as a whole will now take a proactive approach in making contact with families, to ensure that they're aware of any corneal removals," said Coroner Director Anthony Hernandez.

The coroner's about-face comes after the Los Angeles Times revealed that the Doheny Eye & Tissue Transplant Bank has paid substantial sums to the morgue in exchange for thousands of corneas, removed without family consent under a little-known state law.

The 14-year-old statute permits the removal of corneas if no known objections exist from next of kin. But coroners are not required to ask, a loophole that critics say has been used to an unmatched degree in Los Angeles - to the financial advantage of the coroner's office, Doheny and its management company, Tissue Banks International.

In the past two years, Doheny has paid the coroner's office between $215 and $335 for a set of corneas. The eye bank then resells them to transplant institutions for a "processing fee" of $3,400 to cover acquisition, testing, storage and distribution of the corneas. Tissue Banks International, for its part, takes a cut of the money.

During a news conference, Hernandez said that beginning today, coroner field investigators will be required to ask family whether they object to corneal removals, which are performed by Doheny's technicians.