With ‘helium cliff’ dodged, more challenging discussions await

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed an amended version of the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, or HR 527, which was approved by the House of Representatives earlier this year. It still needs to be officially signed into law, but this is a major step to averting a helium shortage that had been looming for months.

The bill will secure the supply of the critical element at the Federal Helium Reserve that would have been effectively cut off on Oct. 7 in the absence of legislative action. The reserve contains about one-third of the world’s helium supply and accounts for approximately 40 percent of the helium used in the U.S.

Aside from the very important task of inflating party balloons, helium has a number of applications in manufacturing and research, but most pressing for the medical imaging community is the fact that most MRI scanners rely on liquid helium for cooling.

HR 527 passed the Senate by a vote of 97-2, nearly unanimously in an era of political divisiveness. It’s encouraging that policymakers didn’t ignore this problem and set out to remedy it, albeit very close to the deadline.

Unfortunately, not all challenges facing healthcare will be quite so cut-and-dry, and more contentious debates await. Also this week, Health Affairs published a report from the Office of the Actuary for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) that projected healthcare spending to accelerate over the next decade thanks to an improving economy, an aging population and the continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The landmark reform bill will extend coverage to an additional thirty million Americans. This is wonderful news for those that were previously uninsured, though it will come at a cost; CMS projects healthcare spending will grow at an average annual rate of 5.8 percent from through 2022. This would outpace projected growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and would place healthcare’s share of GDP at 19.9 percent by 2022.

More work still needs to be done to control healthcare costs in the U.S. Within radiology, this has previously meant cutting reimbursements and bundling procedures, targeting imaging utilization rates that once seemed to soar, but have now plateaued and fallen. The same tricks for cutting costs won’t work anymore (if they ever did), and I suspect the next votes on methods to curb spending, whether they are happening in Congress, at a regulatory body or within individual practices, will not be nearly unanimous.


Evan Godt
Editor – Health Imaging