Congress grants HME industry a reprieve

Thursday, December 20, 2007

WASHINGTON - The industry breathed a sigh of relief last week when a new Medicare bill contained no reimbursement cuts for home medical equipment. But it's going to take a ton of hard work to continue that winning streak in 2008.

"This is a delay, an intermission," said Cara Bachenheimer, Invacare's senior vice president of government relations. "It does give us some time, and time is opportunity, but this thing is going to start up real quick in 2008."

The Senate passed S. 2499 unanimously Dec. 19. The House voted 411 to 3 in favor of it Dec. 20. President Bush is expected to sign the legislation before the new year.

Originally, lawmakers had discussed eliminating the first-month purchase option for power wheelchairs and cutting reimbursement for stationary oxygen concentrators by 40%. Savings from those cuts would have been used to help eliminate a 10.1% reimbursement cut for doctors scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2008. Instead, lawmakers opted for a non-controversial, scaled-back bill that delayed the physician cut for six months, until June 30, 2008.

If Congress wants to extend the delay beyond that date--as physicians will most likely lobby for--lawmakers will have to find money to do that. That means the first-month purchase option and cuts for oxygen could be back on the table in 2008, said Seth Johnson, Pride Mobility's vice president of government affairs.

"If we do a similar job advocating our position on those issues next year, as we did this year, then we'll largely end up with the same outcome," Johnson said. "In an election year, it will be tough to get anything substantial passed. We'll likely see a scaled back (Medicare) package that addresses the doctors sometime in June. They will punt a broader Medicare bill until after the election, sometime in the spring or summer of 2009."

There's still plenty of work to do in 2008, cautioned Johnson and others.

Industry advocates in the Senate threatened to derail S. 2499 if it contained cuts to home medical equipment. Because it passed under a fast-track procedure called "unanimous consent," even one dissenting senator could have sunk the bill. That's why it had to be non-controversial. Next time around, in a conventional voting situation, that will not be the case, said industry watchers.

"This shows that we can make a difference, and I would encourage all of those who are involved to talk to five of their friends and encourage them to become involved," said Walt Gorski, AAHomecare's vice president of government relations. "We'll have to redouble or triple our efforts (in 2008)."