Tuesday, November 13, 2001

First came the disheartening news that the American Red Cross was slow to distribute relief funds to the families affected by the attacks of September 11. Then came the distressing news that the relief funds were being used for programs unrelated to September 11. Now, the most shocking news of all: America’s No. 1 blood bank might destroy tens of thousands of pints of donated blood because of greed and mismanagement.

A federally chartered and 120-year-old non-profit, the Red Cross collects about 6 million pints of blood each year and earns 60 percent of its revenue ($1.5 billion) by selling such blood byproducts as plasma and platelets for $225-plus per unit. It began soliciting cash and blood donations immediately after the September 11 attacks and, within a month, had collected as much as 400,000 extra units. The blood donations could have easily fattened its coffers, except for one tragic factor: The majority of the victims of September 11 perished.

Compounding the problem was that the Red Cross, which ordinarily could have frozen the blood and thawed it for use later, couldn’t do that either. Seems that, while it had a surplus of cash, thanks to Americans who were more than generous with their wallets, the Red Cross had neither the equipment, the plan, nor the manpower to freeze the surplus blood donations. In other words, it simply had too much blood on its hands. And, even after conferring with the Bush administration, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and others in the field, the Red Cross did not inform Americans that they should donate blood at a later date. As a result, blood inventories more than tripled.

Now the inevitable has happened. The 42-day shelf-life of blood that the Red Cross collected immediately after the terror attacks has come and gone, which means it is useless and must be burned. Thousands of units of blood have been destroyed, thousands more are slated to be burned. Also startling was outgoing President Bernadine Healy’s confession last week at a congressional hearing that the Red Cross plans to establish a major blood-freezing program and plans to finance that program with $50 million of the money that donors intended to help families of the September 11 terror attacks.

An estimated 3,000 donors have contacted the American Red Cross in recent days and demanded to know where their money is going. The standard answers are long-term needs, such as the blood-freezing program, counseling, and future attacks responses that have left some Americans of the mind that a federal charity czar be established or that Congress legislatively mandate what happens to charitable donations. Both would produce disastrous results. But, now that the America Red Cross has been caught red-handed, it might not be a bad idea if state attorneys general took a serious peek at the American Red Cross.

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