A taxpayer gamble on medical tourism: Louisiana subsidizes proton therapy to boost its economy

Taxpayers in Louisiana are helping to subsidize construction of two health care centers offering a divisive cancer treatment — even as state lawmakers prepare to cut millions from basic health services.

The treatment is called proton therapy, and this spring, the state’s economic development department promised up to $10.6 million to two companies, one to build a center in Baton Rouge and the other in New Orleans.

Proton therapy is touted as a procedure with low side effects — a pencil-sized beam of protons is shot directly at tumors, with the goal of sparing the healthy tissue around it. It’s a therapy that only works well on a few cancers, and hasn’t had rigorous trials to test its more global efficacy. It’s a big gamble with tax dollars in a state where the Legislature is trying to pare more than $200 million from its health care budget.

“Changing technologies are a risk,” said Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson. “For proton therapy, we don’t know five years from now if there will be a neutron beam, or something, that changes how they treat cancer.”

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