HME nemesis Rep. Bill Thomas to retire

Sunday, March 12, 2006

WASHINGTON - The industry breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the man behind the recent 36-month cap on Medicare oxygen payments and other HME cuts, announced he would not run for re-election in November.

Thomas' decision to enter the private sector and step down from his post as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, however, does not mean the industry can let its guard down.

"You've got a budget deficit and the reality is that they are going to continue to look at how they can slow down the growth of entitlement programs," said Tom Ryan, chairman of AAHomecare.

With eight months before the November elections, Thomas has plenty of time to push additional HME reimbursement cuts. Additionally, while there seems to be little support in the House of Representatives and Senate to cap oxygen reimbursement at 13 months, as President Bush has proposed, there's no guarantee that won't happen.

"We know that these things can be added, whether or not they appear in the bill," said Mike Reinemer, AAHomecare's director of communications. "We're counseling people not to take anything for granted. Who knows what kind of a swan song Thomas may have planned."

In addition to the recent 36-month cap on Medicare oxygen payments, industry watchers believe Thomas had a hand in the president's proposal to cap oxygen reimbursement at 13 months. He also pushed for the deep HME reimbursement cuts included in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, including national competitive bidding.

Exactly why Thomas, who has never returned phone calls from HME News, appears to disproportionately target the HME industry for reimbursement cuts is unclear, say industry watchers.

"He might see us as an easy target and as a crooked industry and not part of the (healthcare) solution," said John Gallagher, vice president of government relations for the VGM Group.

Whatever the reason, Gallagher added, the industry has to worry about him until he leaves office.