Models Flirt for Marrow Donors

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Natasha Smahlei's blue hair at the New England Business Expo

December 16, 2010; Source: New York Times | You gotta love Natasha Smahlei's blue hair at the New England Business Expo. A professional model, Smahlei wasn't pitching the latest cars off the Detroit assembly lines, but asking people for DNA swabs. She was working for Caitlin Raymond International, a bone marrow registry nonprofit subsidiary of the UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Mass., enlisting potential marrow donors.

Caitlin paid between $40,000 and $60,000 a week to a Boston-area agency for use of models like Smahlei, and billed insurance companies as much as $4,300 for testing each swab. James T. Boffetti, the state’s senior assistant attorney general, told the New York Times that the registry had hired models based on their photographs and had given them “explicit instructions” to wear heels and short skirts. "The models worked the crowds . . . [to] engage a lot of younger men with some sort of flirtatious thing [like] 'Hey, don't you want to be a hero? '" Boffetti said.

No one could verify that Caitlin required the models to wear the neon blue wigs. This doesn't seem to have been Caitlin's first run-in with investigators. Last week, the self-insured city of Manchester, N.H. complained that it had been billed $8,000 for two employees whose mouths had been swabbed at the Mall of New Hampshire—the actual cost of the test may be as low as $100.

UMass Memorial explains that it uses the models "to help acquaint the public on how they can contribute to this lifesaving effort." It has turned into a lucrative lifesaving model. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care officials say that the number of bills from UMass Memorial for these tests tripled in 2009, costing Harvard Pilgrim $1.5 million and prompting the company to request a renegotiation of its reimbursement rate.

The Boston Globe reported that UMass Memorial has now stopped hiring models, but the AG's office is still looking into what Caitlin and UMass Memorial charge for the tests. According to the chief strategy officer of the National Marrow Donor Program, "Most hospitals and other donor-recruitment organizations do not charge for the testing."

Do these new and intentionally titillating techniques for nonprofit fundraising sully the good work of nonprofits, especially in the field of bone marrow transplants for leukemia treatments? Or was Caitlin/UMass Memorial simply being distinctively creative in ginning up business and revenue?—Rick Cohen