Bills update: 'We need to get everyone charged up'

Sunday, November 4, 2007

WASHINGTON - With the end of 2007 drawing near, the home medical equipment industry is still well short of its goal of collecting 200 co-sponsors for H.R. 1845, a bill that would lessen the blow of national competitive bidding.

The industry needs that many co-sponsors, industry sources say, for the bill to ride the coattails of any future legislation. In early November, the Tanner-Hobson bill had 134 co-sponsors.

"We're plugging away, but, this go around, we're struggling to get members involved and congressmen signed on," said Karyn Estrella, the executive director of the New England Medical Equipment Dealers (NEMED) association. "Everyone's tired; they're burnt out."

Last year, NEMED members got 19 of their 22 congressmen to sign on to a similar bill, H.R. 3559. This year, they have 14, with a 15th on the way, Estrella said.

A Senate companion to the Tanner-Hobson bill, S. 1428, has 13 co-sponsors. Another important industry bill, H.R. 621 and S. 1484, which would repeal the 36-month cap on Medicare oxygen reimbursement, has 126 and seven co-sponsors, respectively.

With Congress aiming to wrap up more than a few loose ends by the end of the year, the industry has had the added challenge of "breaking through the noise level" while lobbying, said John Gallagher, vice president of government relations for The VGM Group.

"It's not that Congressmen don't want to sign on; they just have so much coming at them," he said.

Providers can make a bigger impact on congressmen by involving consumers in their lobbying efforts, Gallagher said.

"If Congressmen only hear from Bob's Pharmacy, they're not going to feel the need to move forward with the bills," he said.

NEMED, VGM and others planned to ramp up efforts in November, December and the beginning of 2008. As part of World COPD Day in November, VGM planned to organize a "shut down the switchboards day," Gallagher said.

"We 're going to have everyone call their Congressmen, and we're going to have a Jerry Lewis telethon type thing on the Web where they can check where their state is," he said. "We need to get everyone charged up."

Even with enough co-sponsors, the industry must work to get the bill attached to a larger bill. Two possibilities: a Medicare reform bill and an appropriations bill.

Unfortunately, Congress doesn't have an easy road ahead with either, industry sources said. Lawmakers won't address Medicare reform until it gets President Bush to agree on a plan to extend children's health insurance; Bush has vowed to veto the current $35-billion, five-year package, financed by a cigarette tax increase. Industry sources suspect Bush will also reject any appropriations bill crafted by Congress.

The industry has through the spring to make something happen, Gallagher said.

"The bills stay alive through the 110th Congress into next year," he said.