Columnist maligns Meek as political race gets ugly

Thursday, July 15, 2010

ORLANDO, Fla. - The mudslinging has begun in Florida's Democratic Senate Primary race, and the HME industry has gotten caught in the crossfire.

Political newcomer Jeff Greene, a billionaire real estate investor who jumped into the primary race late, is competing against Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla. Greene has accused Meek of putting special interests ahead of seniors with H.R. 3790, the bill he introduced last October to repeal national competitive bidding.

"It kind of caught us off-guard," said Rob Brant, president of the Accredited Medical Equipment Providers of America (AMEPA). "You have 19 of 25 legislators from Florida signed onto the bill, and it's about equal between the Democrats and the Republicans. It's a responsible bill, but (Greene) is making it sound like Meek is throwing charity to the industry."

Stirring the political pot is well-known Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas, who on Wednesday wrote a scathing commentary entitled, "Why would Meek oppose savings for Medicare?" The piece leads off: "This is a column about waste, fraud, abuse and self-destruction by U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek." It goes on to imply that Medicare should price shop at, paints the HME industry as fraudulent and suggests competitive bidding is the "beginnings of a solution."

"Any basic understanding of the program reveals that competitive bidding is harmful to patients," said Sean Schwinghammer, executive director of the Florida Association for Home Care Services (FAHCS). "This gentleman got a press release from Meek's opponent and embellished it, either for entertainment or to advance his own agenda."

Particularly irksome for industry stakeholders: the article confuses fraud with price setting.

"They're two different issues," said Michael Reinemer, vice president of communications and policy for AAHomecare. "Folks are lazy, or they don't understand or don't want to understand the issues. You wind up with misperceptions over and over again and then to see it tied into a political campaign--it's the worst of both worlds."

Meanwhile, the industry continues to fight competitive bidding. FAHCS on Friday organized a protest to be held outside a healthcare fraud summit--led by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius--in Miami.

"We would like Sebelius to understand the situation," said Schwinghammer. "We believe in Medicare, but there are a lot of legitimate companies, good companies, that can't function under these prices."

Both beneficiaries, who could lose access to goods and services, and providers, who could be forced to close, stand to lose if the program goes forward, say stakeholders.

"Does the government really want to put 100,000 people out of work with this ill-conceived program?" said John Gallagher, vice president of government relations for The VGM Group.

H.R. 3790 remains at 252 cosponsors and industry stakeholders continue to seek a Senate sponsor.

"We are hearing that Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. are holding it up," said Gallagher. "Other senators are going to defer to them. Even those who are supportive of us are saying, 'It goes nowhere unless you get those guys onboard."