LA Times expose´ deals

Sunday, August 31, 2003

in ‘half truths’
LOS ANGELES - A recent front page article in the Los Angeles Times comparing the cost of a wheelchair to that of a C-Class Mercedes-Benz has some in the rehab industry up in arms.

The July 20 article, which carried the headline “California Pays Steep Prices for Wheelchairs,” detailed the state’s efforts to cut costs, in the face of a $38-million budget deficit.

The 3,000-word article begins by introducing readers to a Medi-Cal beneficiary who uses a $36,933 wheelchair made in Sweden and customized in the United States.

A barrage of messages have been posted to the message board of the National Registry of Rehabilitation Technology Suppliers (NRRTS) recently, decrying the sensational nature of the article. Some rehab providers have even gone so far as to contact the article’s author, Tim Reiterman, and demand that he meet with them.

The L.A. Times reports that in the last five years, the cost of supplying wheelchairs to Medi-Cal beneficiaries has more than doubled. Last year alone, the program bought 16,723 wheelchairs for $66.1 million, the newspaper reports.

Yet Medi-Cal has failed to use its “enormous buying power” to bring down wheelchair spending, the L.A. Times reports. While most other states, like Florida, pay retailers a percentage below MSRP, Medi-Cal consistently pays MSRP, the newspaper reports.

As a result, the California Department of Health Services is proposing the sate contract directly with wheelchair manufacturers and negotiate rebates, and pay lower markups to retailers, the L.A. Times reports. Gov. Gray Davis is also proposing the state eliminate wheelchairs for thousands of adults living on their own or at home, the newspaper reports.

Though the article casts more of a critical eye on the Medi-Cal program than it does on the rehab profession, providers say they resent the way they are represented in the article:

- The article makes is appear as if $36,933 wheelchairs and 230% markups are the status quo;

- The article doesn’t take into account that the price of a wheelchair must cover the following costs: visits and evaluations from qualified professionals, building and fitting the chair, delivery, training consumers to use the chairs, and repairs; and

- The article unfairly links the state’s budget deficit to custom wheelchairs, when custom wheelchairs comprise only a small percentage of the state’s budget, they say.

Dave Williams, director of government relations for the Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare, said the article was a “classic case” of a newspaper “overblowing something.”

“This doesn’t do our industry any good,” he said. “Instead of dealing with the issue straight on, they’re dealing with half truths and innuendoes. That bothers me a lot.”

Williams said no one’s denying that retailers in California “have it very good,” and because of that, it’s no surprise that the state is now facing deep cuts. But blame shouldn’t fall in the laps of those in the rehab profession, he said.

“[Medi-Cal] is doing a bad job approving claims,” Williams said. “But like Medicare, they’re not going to take any responsibility for what’s going on.”

Simon Margolis, president of the Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA), agreed that Medi-Cal could probably be doing a better job approving claims.

“I question whether a $37,000 chair is necessary,” he said. “It may be an unpopular stance, but there’s a big difference between what people want and what they need. That’s the way it is with limited resources.”

Instead of writing letters-to-the-editor, Margolis said he thinks the rehab profession should find a story that shows the benefits of rehab technology and pitch that story to the newspaper.