Medicare change has providers putting brakes on power chairs

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

STATESBORO, Ga. - Provider Charles Fiveash started 2011 with a little belt-tightening when he ditched standard power wheelchairs.

His reason: The elimination of Medicare's first-month purchase option for standard power wheelchairs, which took effect on Jan. 1. 

"It wasn't easy an easy decision," said Fiveash, owner of Georgia Home Medical in Statesboro, Ga. "We're a small community. Now patients are having to drive 50 or 60 miles to Savannah or Augusta."

For HME providers who wish to keep offering power wheelchairs, the change means switching from getting paid upfront to getting it over 13 months.

For Fiveash, who says standard power wheelchairs only accounted for 10% to 12% of his business, it wasn't worth it.

Even for providers who decide to stick with the category--at least for now--the rental market is a new ballgame, says Tammy Johnson, who has had to rethink her inventory.

"We are looking at what we buy and how well it survives out in the field," said Johnson, owner of AbleCare in Lexington, Ky. "We need to able to refurbish that chair if we need to and put it back out there in the field. And they have to have parts that we can replace like the seat and the shroud. Nobody wants to be in a chair that looks beat up."

About 10% of AbleCare's business is power wheelchairs, and if other payers start chipping away at the benefit, it may eventually rethink whether to continue offering the chairs, says Johnson.

For Fiveash, the decision to exit the product category frees him up to focus on his retail business, testing out a few new products here and there to see what sells. And he hasn't abandoned his existing wheelchair customers, he says.

"We'll still continue to service them if they've gotten it from us," he said. "We'll do batteries and things like that."