Long way down

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

ANCHORAGE, Alaska--Provider Carol Sycks crossed four time zones and endured 12 hours on a plane so that she could attend AAHomecare’s Feb. 11 fly-in.

“These Medicare changes are disastrous,” said Sycks, president and CEO of Procare Home Medical. “They are disastrous for anyone, but I think Alaska is harder hit.”

Alaska is a sparsely populated, rural state with about five major DME players, she said. Providers pay roughly five times more for oxygen than those in the lower 48, and it is often difficult to deliver it to patients in remote areas accessible only by plane or boat. For example, Procare provides services to Kodiak Island, about 250 miles off the coast.

“We have to ship tanks to our employees there,” said Sycks. “It’s hazardous and it’s very expensive to ship oxygen. Now Medicare is saying we have to continue to do that for about $61 a month. That doesn’t even pay for loading the van.”

As far as Sycks knows, no Alaskan providers will accept assignment on oxygen after the 36th month. That’s creating panic among beneficiaries, she said.

“We had patients in our office crying because they have to choose between groceries and oxygen,” said Sycks. “Some have gone to churches for sponsors.”

Of three scheduled lawmaker visits during the fly-in, Sycks saw only one senator. She said lawmakers seemed preoccupied with the budget crisis, but she hopes the fly-in moved the oxygen issue up a notch in priority. She followed up with letters after the visits.

“(Our three lawmakers) signed the letter to fix the cap so that was encouraging,” said Sycks. “But Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said there wasn’t a whole lot they could do. It’s the law.”