Hillsboro CSL Plasma center turns donations into medicine
Robert Brazington plays on his phone as he sits in a large medical chair on a recent weekday.
He's waiting to get stabbed, he says.
The Forest Grove resident is one of about 200 people a day who visit a small strip mall off Tualatin Valley Highway, in Hillsboro. Here, a needle is inserted into the 23-year-old's arm, and blood is drawn. He waits about 45 minutes, gets paid $33, and leaves.
By doing this, Brazington is saving lives.
For years, the CSL Plasma donation center at 2055 S.E. Tualatin Valley Highway, has been collecting plasma from donors across Washington County. That plasma is turned into lifesaving medicine, treating everything from hemophilia to tetanus and immune deficiencies, according to the Hillsboro center's manager, Liz Manning.
"We work with people who would have to live in a bubble if they didn't get our products every eight weeks," Manning said. "But because they do, they can lead really normal lives."
Donating plasma has become more and more common in recent years, but as the industry collects billions of gallons of plasma from across the globe, ethicists and some donors are beginning to question whether the business model exploits the poor.
Plasma is a vital component of many medical treatments, but can't be replicated in a lab. That means biopharmaceutical companies, like CSL, rely on people who are willing to give some of their own plasma for the cause. The best way to encourage that behavior, industry officials say, is to offer them compensation.
People can give up to 820 grams of plasma each visit, about one quart. Each of these "donors" as CSL Plasma refers to them, are paid between $22 and $33 per visit, depending on how much plasma is extracted.
The Hillsboro center paid out an estimated $1.3 million to donors since last July, according to Manning.
Domestically, CSL has more than 200 centers in the U.S. and growing. Manning estimates that number to grow to 500 centers within the next five years. CSL Plasma also has donation centers in Hungary, Germany and China.
There are a handful of plasma centers in the Portland area, but the Hillsboro CSL is the only plasma collection center in Washington County.
The Hillsboro site opened in 2014 and is still gaining a base of donors, Manning said. The center receives about 1,100 donations of plasma each week. Another CSL location in Gresham receives about 2,000 donations in that time. The largest center in the CSL chain — located in Brownsville, Texas — collects about 5,000 donations each week, Manning said.
A booming business
The process is similar to donating blood, but donors can return as often as twice per week, a practice commonly used by CSL's donors in Hillsboro, Manning said.
Donors are encouraged to give, again and again. This month, if donors give eight times — returning twice a week for the entire month — they will receive an extra $100 bonus, Manning said.
"We want to encourage them to come as often as possible," Manning said.
And come they do. Across the country, more and more Americans are turning to plasma extraction centers like the Hillsboro site for easy money.
"I donate myself," Manning said. "Twice a week."
Four people at the Hillsboro center have earned the distinction of being "platinum donors," meaning they donate at least 100 times a year, for three years in a row.
"It's a side gig, like driving for Lyft," Manning said. "Of course, it's not guaranteed, because if your blood pressure is out of range you can't donate. We don't pitch it as a part-time job, but I use it to buy concert tickets or go on vacation. It covers those menial expenses."
With many repeat donors, Manning said staff at the center get to know people really well.
"You'll learn everyone's life story and what they're up to," Manning said. "It's always interesting what brings them in. Maybe a friend needs plasma, or in Kansas (where Manning previously worked) a couple wanted to donate to save money for their grandkid's college fund. They gave the money to them as a graduation present."
CSL pushes people to make multiple donations for multiple reasons, Manning said. A person's first donation is sent for testing, to ensure the donor's plasma is suitable for use. Subsequent donations are used to make medicine, Manning said.
"They can't get accurate test results unless people donate more than once," Manning said. "If we don't get a second bottle in a six-month period, that first bottle goes in the trash."
But critics say the industry's reliance on paid donations has been disparately focused on the poor, who need the fast money offered by plasma collectors.
More people are turning to plasma donation centers than ever before, creating a $21 billion dollar industry. More than 38 million people donated plasma in 2016, three-times the amount of donations made a decade earlier, according to the Plasma Therapeutics Association. The U.S. supplies about 70 percent of the world's plasma. Blood products, including plasma, make up nearly 2 percent of all American exports. More than soybeans, computers or corn.
That's different than many other countries. In much of Europe, plasma donors are limited to giving up to 45 times per year — fewer than once per week — compared to 104 donations a year in the United States. Australia, France and Belgium have banned the practice of paying for plasma, arguing it puts pressure on the poor to donate more than is safe.
Critics of plasma donation centers say they are typically located in poorer areas and target those looking to make money, rather than donors with an altruistic desire to give back. Mary Coates, communication's director with CSL Plasma, said the company places its centers on public transportation lines and areas with "more dense populations" to have access to a "larger pool of healthy donors." Coates said the plasma industry wants to spread the message that its donors come from all walks of life, and are not just the very poor.
"We believe that it is a disservice to our donors to categorize them that way," she said. "Someone's socio-economic status should not be a factor in eligibility to donate."
'I'm here for the cash'
Manning said there's no difference between donating blood to organizations like the Red Cross and donating plasma.
"They see giving to the Red Cross as a donation, but they are making money out of this. They see it as different, but it really is the same," Manning said. "We can't force people in here. We're not offering a product. Just like the Red Cross encourages people with an 'O'-blood type, because it's a universal donor, all plasma is universal. If you're donating, everyone wins."
Many living in extreme poverty rely on plasma centers like Hillsboro's CSL to make ends meet. In 2014, a woman sued the Gresham CSL donation center after she was banned from donating plasma for a year after a phlebotomist at the site allegedly pricked himself, then her, with the same needle. She sued the center for $10,000, including $3,800 in lost income. That case was settled out of court.
"I'm here for the cash," said Brazington, the donor from Forest Grove. A temp worker, Brazington said he doesn't make enough to pay the bills. The money he makes selling his plasma helps keep him afloat.
Brazington has been making the trip from Forest Grove to Hillsboro twice a week for two years.
"I used to go out to Portland, but then this opened. This beats going out to Portland," he said. "This is the cleanest plasma center I've seen."
It takes about an hour-and-a-half to complete the entire process, Manning said, from checking in to collecting payment. About half that time is spent physically drawing plasma.
Manning admits there is a stigma against people who donate plasma as being very poor. She said people who donate come for a variety of reasons. Some, yes, are interested in a payday, but others come out of an altruistic sense of giving back, she said.
"There's a misconception about the people coming in here," Manning said. "People think they're just looking to make a quick buck. They are here because they want to help somebody. At the end of the day, a patient is able to get a product they otherwise couldn't."
To combat that stereotype, Manning said CSL Hillsboro donates to local charities, including Friends of Trees and Community Action, which works with the homeless in Washington County. Nationally, CSL Plasma raises money for the Immune Deficiency Foundation and United Way.
CSL Plasma says the money it pays to donors is meant to compensate them for their time donating, not for the plasma itself.
"You're not selling your body to us," Manning said.
Next to Brazington, 55-year-old Susan Diamond, of Tigard, is wrapped in a warm blanket she brought from home.
Diamond has been coming to Hillsboro twice a week to donate plasma since January. When the former electronics worker developed arthritis in her hands, she couldn't use a soldering gun as well as she once did, she said.
"I just couldn't do it anymore," she said. "So I come here while I try to find what I can get into next. This is a little extra money, while I look for a job."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to better reflect the countries CSL Plasma has donation centers.
By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
Visit Hillsboro Tribune on Facebook and Twitter
Follow Geoff at @ReporterGeoff
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox