Tennessee House passes Rep. Robin Smith's proton radiation therapy bill vetoed last year by then-Gov. Bill Haslam

The bill is now on its way to the desk of Tennessee's new governor, Bill Lee

District 26 Republican candidate Robin Smith speaks during a meet-and-greet hosted by the League of Women Voters last month.

NASHVILLE - A bill requiring the state health insurance plan allow use of proton radiation therapy to treat cancer, vetoed a year ago by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, is now on its way to the desk of Tennessee's new governor, Bill Lee, after winning overwhelming approval in the House on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, cleared the chamber on a 94-0 vote with one member voting present. The measure previously passed the Senate.

photo District 26 Republican candidate Robin Smith speaks during a meet and greet hosted by the League of Women Voters in the Chattanooga Rooms at the University Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"The state of Tennessee has the sixth highest death rate due to cancer," Smith, a registered nurse, told the chamber. "Physicians know that 60 percent of cancer patients will receive some type of radiation treatment in their course of cancer therapy."

Smith said physicians also know that "reducing that exposure to radiation is very critical in the survival of the patient. Why? Because radiation kills not only the tumor and the cancer cells but also the healthy tissues.

The proton therapy is seen as a more targeted approach less harmful to healthy tissue.

The nation's top cancer specialists use proton therapy, Smith said, adding, "we're just moving and making this available based on the recommendations of leading cancer authors."

It passed with no debate.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy using high-energy beams to treat tumors. Radiation therapy using X-rays has long been used to treat cancers and benign tumors. Using positively charged particles called protons, proton therapy "has shown promise in treating several kinds of cancer," according to Mayo.

In vetoing the proton therapy bill last year, Haslam said it "circumvents the established process for determining state employee insurance program coverage based on medical evidence and effectiveness."

Moreover, the governor said, "the state plan currently covers many forms of radiation treatment, and the provider advocating this bill rejected a medically appropriate plan for expanded coverage to instead pursue a political mandate."

According to a fiscal note on this year's bill, SB195, the Proton Therapy Access Act requires the group insurance program to cover a physician-prescribed hypofractionated proton therapy provided that the cost is the same as would be paid for intensity-modulated radiation therapy, another advanced type of radiation therapy used to treat cancer and noncancerous tumors.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.