J&J rolls out manual wheelchair

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Friday, February 28, 2003

WARREN, N.J. - After a 20-year plus absence from the wheelchair market, Johnson & Johnson will re-enter the industry this month when it starts shipping its new iGlide manual assist wheelchair.

The former parent company of Invacare plans to do more than manufacture the iGlide. Through its Independence Technology subsidiary, J&J is also building a sales force and a North Carolina-based reimbursement team to reach end-users and negotiate funding for its new $7,900 chair.
Using sensors and microprocessors, the iGlide monitors the user’s input and adds power as-needed to maintain a steady pace whether climbing or descending hills or crossing terrain such as grass or soft carpet.

The iGlide is a surprise first step for J&J, which first announced its intentions to re-enter the wheelchair market with the stair-climbing iBot wheel-chair in the summer of 1999. How J&J would roll out a chair that’s expected to come onto the market at about $29,000 has been a matter of speculation for some time.

Last fall, J&J’s Independence began advertising for 24 sales reps with PT/OT backgrounds and two or more years of successful sales experience at rehab clinics to begin selling the iBot. The formation of that sales force is ongoing, but to date, J&J has netted at least one well-known rehab industry salesman, Tom Mullen, a former Quickie west coast sales rep.

Introducing the iGlide also suggests that J&J’s plans for the wheelchair market are not merely limited to one glamorous product, but to a broader appreciation of the market in general. The sales force that J&J began building for the iBot will sell all of the company’s emergent products, according to Independence Technology’s v.p. of sales and marketing, Dave Brown.

DIRECT MODEL

Critics of J&J’s plans for the wheelchair market have focused on two principal issues. First, the iBot, which is expected to hit the market is several months, is too expensive and less relevant for rehab customers than a high-end chair manufactured by the industry’s established players. Second, bypassing the traditional distribution channels will only increase the chances that the iBot will gain little traction in the rehab market.

As Independence Technologies takes the iGlide to market, J&J will be testing the waters with its direct-to-consumer strategy. The play works this way. To gain exposure, Independence will launch a marketing campaign that includes advertising and direct mail. Reps on the J&J side of an 800-number will link the interested end-user with a local Independence product consultant. Another ‘case management’ company in North Carolina will work to maximize reimbursement for the product.

These are not untried waters for J&J. J&J Vision Care successfully sells Acuvue contact lenses direct to end-users. But critics point out to a daunting distance between selling packages of contact lenses for $30 to an enormous market and very expensive wheelchairs to a relatively tiny market.

J&J has heard the criticism.

“We’ve looked at this long and hard,” said Brown. “We know we have a lot to learn. We know we are new to this industry. We know there are going to be a lot of challenges. But J&J feels strongly that w e can look at an industry and try something different.”

What makes J&J’s challenge even greater with its power assist gambit is the difficulty of getting funding for power assist products. Medicare has not established a reimbursement code for power assist chairs. Attempts by established power assist companies like Frank Mobility have come to nothing.

“We recently had a hearing and did a presentation for Medicare in Baltimore,” said Werner Frank, president of Frank Mobility. “But they said there aren’t enough chairs being sold” to warrant a code.

Worldwide, Frank estimates that Alber, the company that makes his power assist motor accessories, sells about 4,000-5,000 units. A second company, Yamaha, makes a power assist add-on that Sunrise Medical started selling on its Quickie Xtender chair last Medtrade and that Invacare sells in Europe.

In the United States, the market for power assist chairs could get a boost if J&J manages to wrestle a new precedent-setting code from the SADMERC. But that market, at least for power assist chairs, will always be a niche, say rehab suppliers.

“We’ve sold [power assist] wheelchairs for two-three years,” said Mike Mansfield, of rehab Specialists in Mountain View, Calif. “But we have not sold a lot of them.” HME

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