With the election drawing near, the odds that Congress will take up any controversial issue is slim. However, there is yet much work to be done and the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance (MITA) has sent a letter to the Congressional leadership urging action on the worldwide helium shortage, a critical issue that needs to be acted on in the next few weeks, MITA says.
The United States is the leading producer of helium and has long had a government stockpile of the gas near Amarillo, Texas. However, in 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law an act to get the government out of the helium business. As mandated by this law, the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve, which currently supplies roughly 30 percent of the world’s helium, must be sold off by 2015 at a price that will cover the government’s cost for purchasing its helium stockpile in the first place back in 1960.
In April, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012 (S.2374). It would extend the deadline for the government to get out of the helium business to allow more private suppliers to come on line. In addition, it would require the government to sell its helium at market rates instead of rates set by its need to cover the cost of the principal and interest remaining on the loan taken out in 1960 to set up the reserve. This would fix the current price instability for helium that is contributing to the the shortage, experts say.
The bill currently has 22 co-sponsors, 10 of which are Republican, 11 of which are Democrats and one of which is an independent, making it theoretically one of the few non-partisan issues in this election year. Yet, the Senate has not acted on the bill since May, when a committee hearing was held, and a companion bill has not been introduced in the house.
Meanwhile, time is running out to act, says MITA and the result could harm not only the MRI manufacturers they represent but also patients and the diagnostic imaging providers that support them. Because liquid helium is the only element that can cool the superconducting wire within the large magnet in MRI systems to the necessary 4.2 Kelvin (-452 F), it is essential in producing MRI systems and keeping them operational.
“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 the organization’s official statement about the letter to Congress. “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.”