An alternative cancer treatment center that was expected to open in Baton Rouge at the end of this year remains a goal, but it's unclear how long it will be before that happens.
The proposed $40 million proton cancer therapy center is a partnership among Provident ProtonCare, a division of Baton Rouge-based nonprofit Provident Resources Group, and health care providers Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System and Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, along with Woman's Hospital.
"We're still committed to the development of the proton center, however, we are waiting on certain actions by the boards of directors," said Steve Hicks, CEO of Provident Resources Group.
The location of the project has not been decided as organizers consider the most cost-efficient option for the project and its feasibility, nor is there a public timeline. Plans are to consolidate administration of the cancer center with existing office support from the health care providers involved to reduce costs of the operation. Once opened, the facility could see up to 350 cancer patients each year.
Proton therapy uses a thin laser beam to destroy cancerous tumors without damaging tissue around the area and can be an alternative to radiation therapy for some cancers.
Hicks said his organization is waiting on board approvals from the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center and the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System to move forward with the project. Provident is expected to issue tax-exempt and taxable bonds to finance the cancer center. Each of the health care providers would chip in for operations. After 20 years, the cancer center would be donated to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
Provident Resources Group owns another proton cancer center with five treatment rooms in Atlanta that opened in late 2018. The Emory Proton Therapy Center is expected to see about 400 cancer patients each year and is near Emory University Hospital. The Atlanta proton center was projected to cost $200 million when it was announced in 2013.
The Baton Rouge project was scaled back in 2018 from two treatment rooms to one, which brought costs down by about half from $85 million initially projected.
"Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center is committed to bringing proton therapy to Baton Rouge," said CEO Todd Stevens. "We know there will be bumps in the road but we want to make it happen."
The organization is still working on making sure the project is financially feasible before bringing it to the board for consideration, Stevens said. But it may be even more expensive to operate the center if the federal government moves forward with a proposed plan to cut cancer care costs.
In January 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation are proposing that cancer treatment providers would no longer be reimbursed for the cost of each treatment; rather the government would bundle payments for more than a dozen different types of cancer in an effort to reduce costs of health care. That means more expensive treatments, such as proton therapy, would be even more costly because the center would be reimbursed at the lower bundled rate.
The Baton Rouge proton center would be the second in Louisiana.
In 2011, the Willis-Knighton Proton Center in Shreveport was announced and it opened in 2014. The single-room proton therapy center cost about $40 million to build and treats roughly 200 patients each year.
There were on average nearly 25,000 individuals with cancer across Louisiana between 2012 and 2016, according to the National Cancer Institute. Inside that figure, there were 2,500 cases in Jefferson Parish and 2,100 in East Baton Rouge Parish. Orleans Parish had about 1,800 cases of cancer during that five-year time frame.