Medical imaging group to Congress: Keep helium reserves operational

The Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance (MITA) has asked Congress to avoid the shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve, which could impact the operation of MRI scanners and patient access to services.

The group sent a letter Oct. 2 addressed to Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking Congress to keep the reserve operational in order to avoid a helium supply crisis in 2013.

According to MITA, if Congress fails to act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will shut the reserve down as early as next year, taking 30 percent of the world's helium supply off the market.

This could exacerbate a growing helium shortage caused by a number of factors--from wildfires in Wyoming to lower natural gas consumption for home heating from this year's warm winter. Helium is critical to the operation of MRI machines because it is used to cool the scanners' giant superconducting magnets and a helium shortage could reduce access to MRIs.

An article in the Wall Street Journal reported that continued operation of the reserve depends on a sunset provision of a 1996 law. That provision requires that the reserve remain in operation until its helium supplies are drawn down to pay for a $1.3 billion debt incurred by the BLM to pay for the helium, as well as the equipment to process it.  The BLM says the entire debt will be paid off by 2013.

"Failure to preserve our domestic helium supply will have reverberating effects for the U.S. medical imaging sector and the entire health care industry," said Gail Rodriguez, executive director of MITA, in a release. "MRI manufacturing facilities will have no choice but to slow or shut down production, hospitals and physicians will have to turn away patients due to the insufficient helium supply, and, ultimately, patients will simply not have access to the care they need."

Congress has begun addressing the issue. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) have introduced the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 (S. 2374) that would extend the authorization of sales of helium from the Federal Helium Reserve.

For more:
- see the announcement from MITA
- read the story in the Wall Street Journal
- look at S. 2374

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