Researchers, Industry, Radiologists Urge Helium Bill Passage

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With the Oct. 7 deadline to close the Federal Helium Reserve looming, more than 100 academic institutions, manufacturers, physician organizations and other stakeholders signed a joint letter to the House of Representatives and Senate leadership urging Congress to change the law and allow the reserve to stay open until private helium suppliers are ready to take over.

The Federal Helium Reserve provides approximately half of all the helium used in the United States, noted the signers of the letter. Others put the estimate somewhat lower. Earlier this year, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore), who sponsored legislation to delay the closing of the reserve, put the amount of helium furnished by the reserve at 40 percent of the domestic supply and 30 percent of the global supply.

Regardless, the amount is very large and uncertainty over the mandated closing of the reserve has led to problems with helium shortages and a rise in prices that has impacted everyone from researchers and MRI manufacturers to party suppliers that sell balloons.

The House has passed H.R. 527, a bill to keep the reserve open and authorize it to continue to sell helium. However, the Senate needs to pass its version of the bill (S. 783) in order for a consolidated bill to be approved and sent on to President Barack Obama for signing into law.

The Reserve is a massive underground storage facility outside of Amarillo, Tex, that was built during WWII to protect the domestic supply of helium. In 1996, the Helium Privatization Act became law. It mandated that the reserve must be closed and the supply sold off for at least $1.3 billion to compensate the government for setting up the supply in the first place.

However, despite the long notice, private suppliers of helium have not rushed to fill the large gap that will be created when the U.S. government exists the helium supply market. Backers of the two bills to delay the closing note that the original deadline of October 7 was arbitrary and there is no reason to stick to it, especially when doing so would be disruptive to many sectors of the economy, including health care and defense, that require a secure and affordable supply of helium.

“With prompt action to avert the October 7 helium cliff, Congress can strengthen advanced manufacturing of semiconductors and other products, enable continued scientific research, and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in sales revenue to the federal government,” noted Brian Toohey, president and CEO of Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) in a joint press release with the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance (MITA). “Legislation to secure the supply of helium is an all-too-rare slam dunk for Congress, and policymakers should act swiftly to approve it.”

Along with SIA and MITA, diagnostic imaging organizations and companies signing onto the letter included the ACR, the Academy of Radiology Research, the Access to Medial Imaging Coalition, GE, Hitachi Medical Systems, Lung Cancer Alliance, Philips and Siemens.