AAH keeps the faith

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Since forming three years ago through the merger of NAMES, HIDA Homecare and the Home Health Services and Staffing Association (HHSSA), AAHomecare has chalked up a number of victories for the HME industry.

Last year’s successful effort to stave off national competitive bidding, for example, looms large in the minds of AAHomecare supporters. So too does the restoration of a CPI increase for DME in 2000; the coordination of industry lobbying efforts; and grassroots initiatives to involve consumers in carrying to the Hill the industry’s message that homecare is patient preferred and less expensive than institutional care.

That’s the kind of success HME leaders envisioned when they merged NAMES into AAHomecare in 2000. The merger let the different groups speak with one voice and eliminated confusion on Capitol Hill as to who spoke for the industry.

Despite its successes, AAHomecare is not without its naysayers.

Some in the rehab community complain that their interests are unique enough that providers of the high-end products would be better off forming their own trade group. Others argue that the wants of HMEs and HHAs are too divergant to be covered by a single political umbrella, and that big national members like Apria exert too much control over the association’s message and strategy.

In an association with sometimes competing interests, that’s to be expected, say industry watchers.

“I have 12 brothers and sisters and there are times when we fight like dogs — until somebody wants to take on one off us,” said Dave Williams, Invacare’s director of government relations. “Then all of a sudden there are 13 people you are fighting against. I think that is the strength of the association. Internally, we may have our disagreements, but externally we know we are in the boat together.”

Would home medical equipment providers have achieved the same success going it alone as NAMES? Maybe. But most, it seems, think not, including Jim Clark. The president of Clark Respiratory and Medical Supply in Catskill, N.Y., quit NAMES in the late 1990s, following several years of membership. His reasons: Lack of leadership and ineffective lobbying.

“Medicare is 40% to 50% of the average provider’s income, and the focus of NAMES should have been very squarely on Medicare,” Clark said. “Instead, it appeared to be focused elsewhere. I don’t care about all the programs and stuff. If I don’t have dollars in my pocket, what good are you to me?”

Clark joined AAHomecare when Tom Connaughton took over as CEO and paid the outgoing exec a simple but meaningful compliment: “He wins.”

AAHomecare board member Tom Ryan agrees with Clark that NAMES wasn’t the advocacy group the HME industry needed. BBA ‘97, which froze CPI increases for HME and slashed oxygen reimbursement 30%, may have proved that point, he said.

“It’s nice to be an association that can provide education to your members and networking, but at the end of the day this industry gets the majority of its money from federal funds, and advocacy has to be your number-one priority,” Ryan said.

If membership numbers are any indication, providers approve of AAHomecare’s focus on advocacy, and that focus won’t change anytime soon, said incoming AAHomecare Chairman Joel Mills, CEO of Advanced Homecare in Greensboro, N.C.

The association retained 80% of its membership this year, its highest retention rate ever. It has also added 100 new members so far in 2003. Those number add up to AAHomecare exceeding its annual budget targets for membership for the first time ever, Mills said.

“People who have typically sat on the sidelines are getting involved because there are some hot topics on Capitol Hill,” Mills said. “That helps the membership, but they wouldn’t be joining the association if they didn’t think it was something that was meeting their needs. People talk with their checkbooks, and I think the membership numbers speak for themselves.”

Of AAHomecare’s 800 members representing 3,000 locations, 70% are HMEs, said James Jorkasky, AAHomecare’s vp of membership and strategic development. HME