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California and the West

Reforms on Cornea Harvesting OKd

October 01, 1998|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday signed a bill plugging a little-known loophole that had allowed the Los Angeles County coroner's office for years to harvest corneas from cadavers without informing the next of kin.

The new law was among a flurry of measures that will probably be Wilson's last to sign--or veto--as governor. Others included laws to curb celebrity-chasing photographers and require hospitals to use safe hypodermic needles.

The cornea measure, sponsored by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), now requires coroners' offices to secure permission from relatives before removing the eye tissue for transplants. It nullifies an obscure 1983 law that allowed coroners' offices to take corneal tissue without contacting families as long as there was "no known objection."

While closing that loophole, the new law also tries to make it easier to identify prospective donors by using the Department of Motor Vehicles to distribute donor forms. It also directs the DMV to redesign driver's licenses to more clearly indicate who would like to have their tissues removed after death.

The Polanco bill was prompted by a Times report last November detailing how the Los Angeles County coroner's office relied heavily on the 1983 law to accept substantial sums over the years from the Doheny Eye & Tissue Transplant Bank in exchange for corneas harvested without consent--although in many cases the families were easily available.

Records show the coroner's office collected $215 to $335 per set of corneas, which were resold by the eye bank at a 1,400% markup. Critics called the practice a virtual cornea mill.

Coroner officials said the arrangement guaranteed a steady supply of the transplant tissue for those in need. But immediately after the story, they changed department policy to require prior permission from family members. The Polanco bill now officially closes that loophole.

The paparazzi bill was introduced after Princess Diana was killed last year in a Paris car crash following a high-speed flight from paparazzi, or celebrity photographers.

The measure, by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), gives celebrities, crime victims and others grounds for lawsuits when they feel their privacy has been violated by photographers or reporters.

Civil action could be brought against those who trespass on private property to photograph, film or record someone for commercial purposes. The bill also includes what is called a "constructive" trespass.

This means, for example, that a photographer with a high-powered lens could be held liable even if he is on public property, if the person being photographed is engaged in personal or family activity where they have a "reasonable expectation of privacy," according to Wilson's statement.

"Under this bill, the so-called stalkerazzi will be deterred from driving their human prey to distraction--or even death," Wilson said.

The California Newspaper Publishers Assn. and other opponents said the measure could infringe on a free press.

"If Mel Gibson feels intruded upon in his backyard having a barbecue, I feel bad," said Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco). "We may find it repulsive, we may find it distasteful. We may feel people are entitled to privacy . . . but if [photographers] are on public property, they should be allowed to do so."

The needle bill, by Migden, is intended to protect health care workers from getting AIDS, hepatitis or other diseases by accidentally sticking themselves with needles.

The measure will require the state to adopt regulations by early next year to require health care facilities to use safety needle devices, such as needle-less IVs, retractable syringes and needles with protective sheaths.

The Republican governor angered consumer advocates by vetoing measures requiring doctors, not HMO administrators, to decide whether a patient should receive a particular type of treatment. Wilson also turned down another bill that would set minimum nurse-staffing levels for California hospitals.

Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Assn., criticized Wilson for vetoing the bill that would have set minimum staffing levels for nurses.

"It is a sad day when the chief officer of our state is more concerned with protecting corporate profits than the public safety of hospital patients," DeMoro said. Wilson said state regulations already ensure adequate staffing.

Jamie Court, director of Consumers for Quality Care, criticized Wilson's veto of the HMO bill.

"The fact that Gov. Wilson could not sign a bill which simply says licensed doctors should make medical decisions demonstrates this governor's obeisance to the HMO and insurance industry," he said. "It will be a landmark day for HMO patients when Gov. Wilson leaves office."

Wilson contended the legislation would increase health care costs and lawsuits.

Times wire services contributed to this story.

* OCEAN PROTECTIONS: Environmental groups decry Wilson vetoes. B1

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