The American Kidney Fund is one of the largest charities in the country, with an annual budget of over $250 million. Its marquee program helps pay insurance premiums for people who need dialysis, a treatment for kidney failure.
Under an agreement with the federal government, the Kidney Fund must distribute the aid based on a patient’s financial need. But the charity has resisted giving aid to patients at clinics that do not donate money to the fund, an investigation by The New York Times has found.
The charity pushed back on workers at clinics that had not donated money, discouraging them from signing up their patients for assistance. Until recently, the Kidney Fund’s guidelines said clinics should not apply for patient aid if the company had not donated.
“I watched many patients who were not able to get that assistance,” said Elaine Brecher, a former social worker at a clinic in Arkansas.
After an application for one patient was declined, she said, she did not apply for others, because a colleague thought that only clinics that donated could refer patients.
Brecher now works at a clinic owned by Fresenius, one of the two largest dialysis companies along with DaVita. The two companies provide nearly 80 percent of the charity’s funding. She said her patients benefited from the Kidney Fund, whose assistance can amount to thousands of dollars a year.
The Kidney Fund’s payments are part of a deal it made with the government and the dialysis industry in 1997. It allows dialysis clinics to donate to the Kidney Fund. But the agreement requires that all patient applications be treated equally, regardless of whether their clinic donates.
In an interview this month, LaVarne Burton, the Kidney Fund’s chief executive, said the charity had never denied anyone assistance if they qualified financially.
“It is simply not true that we require any provider to contribute to the program,” she said.
But an examination by The Times put the actions in a different light.
Jennifer Bruns, of the St. John Transplant Specialty Center in Detroit, had worked in dialysis clinics and said sometimes patients would tell her that their insurance premiums — which the Kidney Fund had agreed to pay — had not been paid that month.
Bruns called the fund, she said in an interview, “and they would say, ‘Well you haven’t made your contribution this month.’ ”