Well-Connected Investors Take Insurance Fight To Lawmakers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A controversial bill in the state legislature would force insurance companies to cover a specific type of cancer treatment.
Insurance companies claim proton therapy is unproven and much more expensive than traditional methods.
The bill comes just three months after the opening of the $115 million Provision Center for Proton Therapy in Knoxville.
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.
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.
But when 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.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates responded, "But the concern is..."
At that point, Haynes stood up and removed the microphone hooked to his jacket.
"Thank you very much. I think we're done," he said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "We just want to ask about his relationship and why are you sponsoring this bill."
"I think I explained that -- so we can give people the cancer treatment they deserve," Haynes answered.
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.
Nashville Tea Party president Ben Cunningham said it is wrong to just change the law so a well-connected company can become financially viable.
"They're on the hook for a huge amount of money, and now they go to the legislature and say, 'Hey, guys, how about a little help here.' Well, you shouldn't go to the legislature for this kind of help," Cunningham said.
After our questions Gov. Haslam said, through a spokesman, that he is opposed to the bill.
The bill will be heard Wednesday in a House subcommittee, where its fate could be determined.