Medical imaging manufacturers are calling on Congress to halt the planned shut-down of the national helium reserve, which could impact production of MRI scanners and patient access to MRI scans.
The closure of the Federal Helium Reserve “has the potential to have enormous effects” on the health care industry, Gail Rodriquez, executive director of the Medical Imaging and Technology Alliance (MITA), said in an interview.
The group set a letter to Congress this week calling on lawmakers to keep the reserve operational to avoid a supply crisis. Unless Congress acts, MITA said, the Bureau of Land Management would have to close the program as early as April 2013.
“Ensuring reliable access to helium is critical in safeguarding patient access to life-saving medical imaging technologies and to the health of the U.S. economy,” Rodriquez said in a statement.
Helium is used in manufacturing the magnets in MRI machines, as well as in operating the machines to cool them down for imaging. Hospital MRI machines regularly must have the helium supply refilled, and a shortage could mean a slowdown in procedures, officials said.
“This is a huge issue for all of our members,” said Brian Connell, MITA’s government affairs director, adding that some manufacturers are reporting they already pay 300 to 600 percent more for helium. “We are facing a hard deadline. It’s getting to crunch time.”
In a House subcommittee hearing earlier this year, GE Healthcare’s Tom Rauch said a worsening supply shortage could harm patient care. “During the time when an MRI is down, whether to replace a magnet, or simply waiting on helium for continued operation, patients would not have access to needed scans,” he said in written testimony.
Rodriquez noted that Congress has started to address the problem, including the introduction of the Helium Stewardship Act, but the organization is concerned the issue could fall by the wayside in the lame duck session.
MITA is asking for the federal government to keep the reserve operational until private suppliers can meet the country’s helium needs through private suppliers being built.
In the letter addressed to Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rodriquez wrote, “Patients, healthcare providers, medical imaging manufacturers, and our employees need Congress to act quickly over the next several weeks to finalize a solution to this helium crisis that recognizes the strained relationship between current supply and demand and avoids disrupting in any way the flow of BLM helium into the market."