Aggressive advertising comes under attack

Friday, October 31, 2003

WASHINGTON - Key industry players made moves in September to address Washington powerbrokers who believe aggressive advertising - especially use of the word “free” - may be driving increases in power wheelchair utilization.

Until September, The Scooter Store, the nation’s largest provider of power wheelchairs, used the word “free” in its advertising. Previously, The Scooter Store promised that it - not Medicare - would give a free wheelchair or scooter to any beneficiary it prequalified who Medicare subsequently turned down.

“There were a whole lot of other people saying if you have Medicare, you can get a free scooter, and I see that as clearly wrong,” said Doug Harrison, Scooter Store owner. “We said to (CMS Administrator Tom Scully) that if we are adding to the confusion we’ll stop using the word in our advertising.”

Also in September, Pride Mobility Products issued a press release that addressed aggressive advertising. In part the release stated that Scully is “clearly unhappy with the aggressiveness of some power chair advertising being done. Pride and many Pride providers agree the industry should recognize this warning as a proverbial “shot across the bow” and modify the tone of these advertisements. It’s Pride’s view we either self-police today or face new, potentially onerous restrictions tomorrow.

“The industry needs to be cautious in the way it uses the word free as it applies to Medicare-covered items,” said Martin Szmal, Pride’s director of government affairs. “You can offer free shipping or free paperwork - the stuff assumed to be at no cost. The aggressive advertising that Tom Scully is referring to is the blatant advertising going on down in Harris County where it was, ‘Call this number and with your Medicare number you can get a free power chair or a free scooter.”’

Scully’s not the only one concerned about aggressive advertising as it relates to power wheelchairs. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in a September letter to Scully said advertisements that used the word free “troubled” him. Grassley went on to say that he was going to ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate that PWC claims made in print, radio and TV advertising are true.

Industry watchers say they see plenty of examples of providers inappropriately using the word free in advertisements. That aside, there is nothing wrong with aggressive advertising that doesn’t use the word free, they say.

“We do TV advertising, but we don’t offer a free scooter or power wheelchair,” said Tyrell Hunter, president of Majors Mobility in Topsham, Maine. “We say something like, if you qualify it may be at no charge to you with secondary insurance. That to me is not an inducement. It is a fine line.”

Inducement is the key word. That is, offering a beneficiary something of value in exchange for their business.

“I have no problem with direct-to-consumer advertising,” said Jeff Baird, a healthcare attorney with Brown & Fortunato in Amarillo, Texas. “But when they say this is free, it becomes a beneficiary inducement and a violation of the anti-kickback statute.”