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Bioscience CEOs join health care reform debate

The debate over health care reform has divided the American people into camps of hope and fear. There's hope that reform will provide secure access to health care for everyone, including millions who now lack it. And there's fear that the cost of such reform will either bankrupt the nation or force it to ration care.

It is a split that is echoed among those who make their livings selling products and services to the health care sector. An Internet panel discussion involving the chief executives of four Western New York-based bioscience companies Monday illustrated the division.

Joe Corasanti, president and CEO of ConMed Patient Care of Utica, has hopes that health care reform may be more properly referred to as "health care extension." That's why he and Julie Shimer, president and CEO of Welch Allyn of Skaneateles Falls, see great promise that reform will allow more people to get into the health care system and receive primary and preventive care they previously would have gone without, and boost the need for the basic tools that those companies market.
Bio-Optronics of Rochester, a software company that specializes in applications promoted to improve the efficiency of hospitals, clinics and research facilities, also sees a bull market in products that make all medical facilities more cost-effective.

"We've focused our attention on products that solve the problem, rather than those that contribute to it," said Bio-Optronics President and CEO Dan Kerpelman.

But as CEO of Greatbatch, a company that sits more on the cutting edge of medical technology, Thomas J. Hook is worried about everything from the creation of higher regulatory hurdles to a possible tax on bio-technology to help pay the enormous cost of extending health care to everyone.

Hook said the Clarence-based medical products and battery company has been growing despite the recession, and he sees many more opportunities for growth in the future. But the uncertainty about the federal role in health care -- regulating it, funding it and taxing it -- make it difficult to plan.

"We have a lot of technologies and core innovations in development," Hook said. "But it's very difficult to commercialize them."

Depending on how things shake out, Hook said, Greatbatch may have to spend less time and money looking for the next big breakthrough and instead focus on more incremental innovations that will provide a quicker, and more certain, return on investment.

Welch Allyn's Shimer, on the other hand, runs a 94-year-old company that makes equipment that has been part of every doctor's office for generations -- such as blood-pressure cuffs, heart monitors, lights used for looking into people's ears.

"Health care reform is going to happen," Shimer said. "More care will be provided. More patients will be in the system."

But, Shimer said, the shortage of general practice doctors means that more of those patients will be served by nurses or assistants. Thus, there will be more demand for tools that do not require extensive training to operate -- or can even be used in the home by patients and their families -- which will be good news for her firm.

Monday's panel was a preview of the MedTech 09 Bioscience Conference, an Oct. 5 meeting in Skaneateles sponsored by MedTech, an industry association based in Syracuse.

e-mail: gpyle@buffnews.com

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