Proton therapy bill, backed by friend of the governor, gets critical TV look

Operators of the new $115 million Provision Center for Proton Therapy in Knoxville are pushing a bill to require that insurance companies cover the treatment of cancer via proton therapy, reports WTVF-TV, though insurance companies claim that’s unproven and more expensive than other methods.

The center was developed by a long-time friend of Governor Bill Haslam, Dr. Terry Douglass. Haslam attended the dedication for the center in 2012 and talked about his friendship with Douglass.

“I was trying to think how long we’ve been friends,” Haslam said. “I think Terry and Crissy and I became friends about 30 years ago, I’m afraid to say.”
But Douglass told a House subcommittee last week the non-profit cancer center is not financially viable unless private insurance companies cover proton therapy.

While the facility is non-profit, our investigation discovered Dr. Douglass also has a substantial amount of his personal money involved in the center.
A spokesman said he loaned the project $42 million.

“We spent $115 million assuming that would happen, assuming there would be private care reimbursement,” Dr. Douglass told lawmakers.

Proton therapy beams protons at tumors which, advocates claim, reduces side effects.

But critics say, in most cases, it’s no better than traditional radiation, even though it can cost a lot more.

The Proton Therapy Center has hired seven lobbyists in just the last two months, including Tom Ingram, the political consultant to Gov. Haslam.
They are pushing a bill (HB264) that would require private insurance companies to cover proton therapy.

“It would be a shame for patients that are fighting prostate cancer, breast cancer and any other kind of cancer that may come, just a shame they couldn’t get that coverage,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville.

…(W)hen NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking Haynes questions about the investors who stand to benefit from the bill, he abruptly ended the interview.
“I think you would have to direct that question to Dr. Douglass. So I can’t answer that,” Haynes said.

…After walking away from our interview, Haynes said he had no idea how much money investors had in the center, and he made this promise:

“If Dr. Douglass is in any way trying to use the General Assembly to promote his own financial gain, I would drop this bill in a heartbeat. But I don’t think Dr. Douglass is doing that,” he concluded.

Haynes told NewsChannel 5 Investigates the next day he is still sponsoring the bill.

The bill has the Republican lawmaker in the unusual position of supporting mandated health coverage — which, state officials said, could drive up the cost for taxpayers.

Haynes claimed that the bill is also an economic development bill because a separate for-profit arm of the center hopes to market proton therapy on a much larger scale and sell proton therapy machines.

He said it could bring thousands of jobs to East Tennessee.

…(W)hen NewsChannel 5 Investigates began asking Haynes questions about the investors who stand to benefit from the bill, he abruptly ended the interview.
“I think you would have to direct that question to Dr. Douglass. So I can’t answer that,” Haynes said.

…After walking away from our interview, Haynes said he had no idea how much money investors had in the center, and he made this promise:

“If Dr. Douglass is in any way trying to use the General Assembly to promote his own financial gain, I would drop this bill in a heartbeat. But I don’t think Dr. Douglass is doing that,” he concluded.

Haynes told NewsChannel 5 Investigates the next day he is still sponsoring the bill.

..After our questions Gov. Haslam said, through a spokesman, that he is opposed to the bill.