A cry for help

Sunday, October 31, 2004

PAINTSVILLE, Ky. - Skyrocketing power mobility utilization has plagued Medicare over the past year, but now this small, Kentucky mountain town is also wincing as more and more of its elderly residents take to the streets on their shiny, new scooters and power wheelchairs.

The 4,000 residents of Paintsville claim to be “over run” with the scooters, and the elderly and disabled are clamoring for changes to accommodate their desire to hit the open road.

Problems first came to the forefront following a scooter-car collision on Kentucky 321, a bustling thoroughfare lined with giant retailers and restaurant chains. Motorists claimed the scooters caused congestion, while the elderly and disabled passed around a petition to get a walkway built along the quarter-mile stretch of road that connects the town’s residential areas and booming commercial center.

“After the accident there were some letters to the editor, but we had already taken steps to address the problem,” said Mayor Doug Pugh.

The town has initiated plans to build a six-foot-wide walkway, but Pugh feels that Medicare and the government should step in to help solve a problem they created.

“If they are going to fund these mobility devices, they are going to have to plan better,” he said.

Paintsville’s plight perhaps reflects the nationwide up-tick in government-subsidized scooters and power wheelchairs that prompted CMS’s now-infamous Wheeler-Dealer crackdown. According to CMS, payments for power mobility shot from $24 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2003.

“We have a 10-story high rise here with a lot of elderly living there,” said Pugh. “I would say that out of the 151 apartment there, that about 50 of those have scooters.”

Mobility providers agree that scooters can be a hazard on roadways, and they urge clients to use the same caution as if they were walking when heading out on a scooter.

“We have had several incidents out here. I know of about three in the last year where people on scooters got hit by cars and got killed,” said Bob Clay, president of Clay Medical Services in Fresno, Calif. “We had a guy get broad-sided at 70 mph, but he was crossing a major roadway, and he wasn’t being safe.”

Clay also recommends that scooter users stick to sidewalks or cling to the sholder as much as possible. But with Paintsville’s Wal-Mart and other retailers within sight from the high rise, residents are still tempted to make the trip on their scooters, said Pugh. He hopes that an eventual walkway will help these people stay mobile and independent without compromising safety.

“The lecture I get from home, when we are walking through town is that Paintsville ought to be a model community for the disabled,” said Pugh, whose wife works in assistive technology at the local rehabilitation center. “And I absolutely agree.”