People probably didn’t pay much attention to Gov. Bill Haslam’s veto of Senate Bill 367, the “Cancer Patient Choice Act.”
This is only the fifth bill Haslam has vetoed since he took office seven years ago. Those higher-profile vetoes were the sort that tend to get more buzz: the Bible, animal abuse, flash mobs and gay students on campus legislation all earned the governor’s veto.
Then there’s Thursday’s veto No. 5. The Cancer Patient Choice Act is about insurance, a conversation that causes peoples’ eyes to glaze over — until they need it to get well. As The Associated Press reported, the legislation would have required state employee insurance to cover proton therapy, an alternative for certain cancers.
Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy that uses a single beam of high-energy protons to treat cancer. The timing and dosage can be controlled so that the maximum amount of energy is deposited directly into the tumor, limiting damage to nearby healthy tissue. That’s especially important when treating cancers of the the brain, breast, lung and neck, among others.
Knoxville-based Provision Healthcare is a provider of proton therapy. In February, it successfully treated the first patients with the newly developed ProNova SC360 proton therapy system. The equipment came from ProNova’s facility at the Pellissippi Place R&D park in Alcoa. Scientists who developed the state-of-the-art equipment earned their scientific chops in Oak Ridge laboratories, where they developed superconducting magnet technology. They say they’ve demonstrated their SC360 is cost effective, energy efficient, smaller and lighter, while improving productivity.
While the Cancer Patient Choice veto might not have generated a vibe like other vetoes, that doesn’t mean it went unnoticed in places like Silicon Valley in California, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and Silicon Hills in Texas.
Researchers are interested in places where high-tech has a fertile climate to grow. When the governor of Tennessee, a state with a reputation for electing pragmatic leaders at the top of government, blocks a bill that would keep health care choices on the cutting edge, people wonder why.
Newspapers from Florida to Washington State picked up the AP story datelined Nashville. Decisions on alternative cancer treatment are newsworthy. When cancer strikes, people care.
Tennessee legislators took it seriously. The Senate passed the bill 29-1-1. The House vote was 85-13. The same day Haslam announced his veto, the bill’s sponsors — Sen. Mark Green and Rep. Bob Ramsey — called for a special session of the General Assembly to override it.
Green, R-Clarksville, is a physician and a cancer survivor: “Unfortunately the governor has chosen to side with the insurance companies and their vendors, ignoring what physicians and the patient have decided is best.”
Ramsey, R-Maryville, as Blount Countians know, is a dentist. He was “shocked and disappointed” the governor has opposed this and similar legislation for five years. “It is established medical fact that proton therapy saves tissue, and thus lowers radiation side effects.”
So what’s the problem? Frankly, that’s what we want to know.
The governor announced, “The state is committed to high-quality care that is medically appropriate and fiscally responsible for patients and taxpayers, but this mandate could put patients at risk and expose them to excessive charges from out-of-network providers.”
Not good enough, governor, not when patients’ lives are at stake. What’s the risk? Where’s the proof of excessive charges?
It might well be that the governor is operating from outdated information. The technology has evolved. We ask that the governor get up to speed on what’s happening in the field of proton therapy to fight cancer. If due diligence doesn’t change his mind, Haslam should lay out his rationale with evidence and reveal his sources. Patients, doctors and researchers deserve that much.