Hello, HME News? This is the GAO

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One morning last month, I, the humble executive editor of HME News, spent 40 minutes on the phone with four Government Accountability Office (GAO) officials, answering questions about Medicare's home oxygen benefit.

At first, I felt kind of flattered. I mean, I'm usually the one who calls government officials to ask questions about government policy. Until this occasion, government officials had never called me to discuss government policy. Why would they? After all, it's their policy, and they should understand it way better than I do. So, as I said, this was a first.

In case you don't know, the GAO is "the investigative arm of Congress" and helps improve the performance and accountability of the federal government. In the past, the GAO has highlighted instances when, in its allegedly informed opinion, Medicare paid too much for DME. In my book, to issue an opinion like that, you've got to really know your stuff.

Now, the GAO folks I talked to seemed very nice, but during the course of our conversation, it began to seem odd to me that an arm of the federal government--with all the massive resources that entails--would call me (let's face it, a questionable source, at best) and want to discuss Medicare oxygen. I mean, I'm not an expert on this stuff. I just report on it. Why not go to the source: CMS.  Really, I would have been only a little more surprised if Mal Mixon had called to get my insights on Invacare's most recent quarterly financial performance.

What surprised me the most was the basic nature of the questions.

For example, they asked how many oxygen providers bill Medicare. What's the difference between a supplier number and an NPI number? Does HME News have data on the cognitive disabilities of oxygen patients? (That was my favorite question. I said no.) Do providers like to be called DMEs or HMEs? What am I hearing about national competitive bidding? (Nobody in the HME industry likes it, I said, with a laugh.) Tell us a little about the typical manufacturer of respiratory equipment.

That was pretty much it.

After we hung up, I no longer felt flattered. I felt concerned. I couldn't shake the feeling that these GAO officials knew little or nothing about the industry. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't imagine that this kind of on-the-job training will result in any thing good for HME providers.