Bill Thomas: a very tough foe

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

WASHINGTON - What is Rep. Bill Thomas’ problem with the HME industry? Almost single-handedly the California republican legislator muscled a healthy dose of reimbursement cuts for HME providers into the Medicare Prescription Drug Act. And nobody seems to know exactly why.

What does the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee - known for his abrasive, belligerent, bulling ways - have against the HME industry.

“I have no idea,” said healthcare attorney Elizabeth Hogue. “I’ve asked the same question myself. I’ve heard rumors of someone who needed equipment but didn’t get it, but I’ve never gotten the scoop on that.”

A Washington insider told VGM’s Vice President of Government Relations John Gallagher that Thomas believes HME providers “are all crooks.” The reason, Gallagher said, is nothing specific. “It wasn’t that his grandmother or staff member got a bad deal.”

Some say a Thomas staffer with a bad opinion of HMEs convinced his boss that the industry’s rotten. Others say he simply doesn’t understand the industry - how equipment is delivered and patients serviced. Maybe he’s beholden to other special interests. Maybe its all that and more.

“We need to get to the bottom of this before we can move forward,” said AAHomecare board member Tom Ryan. “Otherwise we’ll continue to be vulnerable to changes.”

Thomas could not be reached for comment, but a Ways and Means spokesperson said the lawmaker believed the Prescription Drug Act “needed to bring reforms to the (HME) industry that insure quality.”

“He believes the industry should have a say in this every step of the way,” the spokesperson said, alluding to the bill’s call for mandatory accreditation. “It should not be a bureaucratic run sector. It should have more private sector policy.”

In addition to identifying legislative champions who might fight for the industry’s interests, AAHomecare’s “working with our team to see how we can position ourselves in front of Thomas,” said CEO Kay Cox.

Another approach, Gallagher said, is to work to defeat Thomas the next time he’s up for election.

“We need to find out who is going to run against him and put some money to it,” Gallagher said. “He’s not going to like it but tough. Let’s put a scare into him so that he says, ‘Maybe this is a group I need. Maybe I pushed them too far.’”