Bariatric market balloons

Sunday, December 31, 2006

As Medicare reimbursement rates continue to slide, HME providers are scurrying to find other commercial ventures to offset those losses. And there is no better financial counterweight than bariatric products, manufacturers contend.
Along with sleep therapy and diabetic supplies, bariatrics is a bright spot amid a bleak Medicare landscape. Besides representing potentially high retail sales volume, Medicare recently made distinctions in bariatric-grade products, allowing higher fees for heavier-duty equipment.
But while industry observers call the category growth "white hot," provider interest remains tepid at best, said Michael DiFranco, bariatric product manager for Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare.
"It has been spotty," he said. "Many are already selling the occasional 'heavy duty/bariatric' bed, walker, commode or shower chair, but most have not made a bona fide push into bariatrics."
Reasons for this are evident, from the dizzying proliferation of bariatric versions of just about everything to reticence over cash sales to skepticism about the viability of the market. And there is always the age-old dilemma about not knowing what steps to take in setting up a bariatric business. Invacare has responded to these concerns with its "All Roads Lead to Invacare Bariatric Solutions" program, which includes marketing starter kits, introductory seminars and a bariatric profit calculator on the company's bariatrics Web site.
"Invacare has stepped up as a real leader to ease providers' entry into the market," DiFranco said. "These tools can help them to see the real business potential in bariatrics."
Steve Neese, vice president of sales and marketing for Cape Coral, Fla.-based Merits Healthcare, observes that bariatrics has become a product category unto itself rather than just a variation within others.
"We're working hard to accelerate our product range dedicated to that category," he said. "It is a bariatric group, comprising products from beds to walkers to commodes to wheelchairs to patient aids."
Merits didn't showcase a bariatric group at its Medtrade 2006 booth, however, preferring to include bariatric versions of products in other categories as a convenience to customers. The category is generating more interest to be sure, Neese said, but it's not to the point where people come to the booth specifically wanting to look at bariatric products.
Still, Neese contends that in a category "that is growing like wildfire," it won't be long before the HME industry sees providers that focus solely on bariatric patients.
Conversely, Exeter, Pa.-based Pride Mobility did assemble a bariatric section at its Medtrade booth, showcasing several bariatric models in its Jazzy power chair line, and in its bariatric and lift chair lines. The Quantum Rehab booth also featured a bariatric section.
Bariatric specialties
Providers who are interested in expanding their bariatric business may want to look at complementary product lines, such as van conversions and vehicle lifts. Phoenix-based Vantage Mobility International is carving out a bariatric niche with its full-sized van business, a unit that CEO Doug Eaton says is growing faster than any other in the company.
"We believe that the growth engine is the emerging bariatric demographic," he said. "The lowered-floor minivan is still more popular, but it has limitations for the bariatric client in that it offers only slightly more than 1,000 pounds of capacity. If you take a customer who is 300 pounds and then add a 300-pound power chair, the vehicle will only hold two additional people. A full-size van with a lift can easily hold a bariatric customer and five large family members."
To grow the new full-sized van segment, VMI hired a new program manager, created a new supply and distribution model and developed new marketing programs. It has also created a new platform lift called the Slide-Away that has a special application for an 800-pound lifting capacity.
Education essential
Serving the bariatric market requires a fair amount of homework. Demonstrating knowledge builds credibility with the customer base, vendors say.
"We can't stress it enough--the more you can 'talk the talk' of obesity and bariatrics, the better you can serve the patient," DiFranco said. "A progressive thought for the provider would be to have an onsite bariatric specialist who knows the science and academics of obesity-related conditions. The specialist can translate the knowledge into careful sizing and selection of products with the right patient sensitivities."
Neese adds that bariatric products aren't merely bulkier, reinforced versions of regular models. "Bariatric products shouldn't just have the ability to handle increased capacity--they should work better for the patient," he said.