Are Innovations in Healthcare coming to an end in America?

by admin on 06/20/2011 1:08 AM

Europeans come here for front-line cancer therapy. Where will they go after ObamaCare?

A Parable of Health-Care Rationing

BY ANNE JOLIS, WSJ Europe

Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

Imagine you’re a Belgian industrialist with an idea for a device that treats certain cancers. You’re convinced it would be a huge improvement over the existing standard. But it would also be hideously expensive, at least initially, and your specialized contraption will put your country’s public-health accountants in a cold sweat. How to convince investors you’re not insane?
“The American dream,” says a grinning Olivier Legrain, the CEO of Belgian medical-device firm Ion Beam Applications, which was founded in 1986. “It is probably easier to sell innovative ideas in the U.S. than in the rest of the world.”

Ion Beam Applications is now the world’s leading purveyor of equipment for proton therapy, a form of particle radiation designed to treat tumors aggressively while sparing more healthy tissue than in other forms of radiation. The U.S. has 11 such centers in operation—more than any other country. Eight of them were designed, built and installed by IBA.

But Mr. Legrain’s American dream is in doubt, particularly as it relates to high-cost medical innovation. Before meeting him for breakfast last week, I called his biggest customer, a private, Indiana-based firm that runs several proton-treatment centers in the U.S. Asked how the 2010 health-care reform law might affect the market, ProCure CEO Hadley Ford was candid: “My general view is that it’s 900 pages of unintended consequences.” . . .

When the author put that to Mr. Legrain, he shrugged and doubled down. “If you have a good idea, if you have energy, you can make it happen in the States.”

The good idea is zapping localized tumors with charged protons, which scatter less radiation than gamma or x-rays, was born in postwar laboratories of Harvard and Berkeley. The technology was refined by IBA’s engineers, making the technology feasible for market –driven players which made it affordable beyond large research centers. Mr. Ford’s ProCure now runs facilities in Oklahoma, new Jersey and Illinois with another planned for Washington state. IBS also treats patients in Japan, Korea and France. One country notably absent from its client list? Belgium. . .

The result is that the Belgian government ships patients abroad for proton therapy. Most of them go to Massachusetts since the centers in Germany and Switzerland are fully loaded with waiting lists. . .
When ObamaCare takes effect in January, IBA will face a fresh challenge: a 2.3% tax on medical device sales. . .

“I sleep well at night knowing protons are fundamentally better to treat cancer than X-rays,” said Mr. Ford . . .

As for whether America will remain the first destination for medical advances in the age of ObamaCare, Mr Ford cautions: “Anything that moves toward one of anything, you’re going to have less innovation—one provider, one payer, one manufacturer.”

But Mr. Legrain’s faith in the American market seems unshakable. “Even though they’re moving toward a more social system,” he says, “the entrepreneurial spirit—it’s almost, to me, part of the DNA of America.”

Read the entire article . . .
Miss Jolis is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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