Medicare 'stops at the bathroom door'

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Perhaps bath safety should be called "the anti-Medicare" product segment for HME providers. While this purely cash market may cause reimbursement addicts to shudder, it can create a new revenue stream for those looking to diversify their product mixes.

Ray Norton, vice president of marketing and sales for Plano, Texas-based Mangar USA, considers bath safety and HME retail to be his "soapbox" issues.

"I get too many DMEs calling me asking what the Medicare code is for a bath lift," he said. "There is no code. Medicare stops at the bathroom door."

Because they don't require much upfront investment, bath safety products are a perfect cash complement to the established categories of mobility, hospital beds and oxygen, said Lawrence de la Haba, senior vice president of homecare business development for Atlanta-based Graham-Field.

"The great thing about bathroom safety products is that most are relatively inexpensive," he said. "Many products retail for under $100. This means that an HME provider can add a fairly complete selection of bathroom safety products to their showroom with a small investment in inventory."

Commercially, the products are well positioned to serve the "aging in place" trend as the boomer generation enters their senior years, Norton said. And although the recession has caused consumers to curtail spending, he believes the demand for bath safety items will continue to grow.

"The economy has changed from 'I would like to have it, so I will buy it' to 'I need it, so I have to buy it,'" Norton said.

Stephen O'Hare, vice president of sales for  Marietta, Ga.-based Gordon Ellis USA, concedes that "the economy has affected nearly all facets of retail sales as people have drifted toward a needs-based approach when making a purchase," which is the perfect rationale for promoting bath safety items.

"I think people realize that a preventative approach can save not only thousands of dollars given a worse-case scenario should a fall take place, but also help prolong quality of life, which invariably diminishes considerably after a fall," he said. "In that regard, I think the segment has been insulated a little and is doing better than most."

Planning a strategy

The best way to enter the bath safety market is to target the source, said Diego Picchetti, marketing director for Alpharetta, Ga.-based Probasics by PMI/Pinnacle Medsource.

"In this business it starts with the referral sources: outpatient clinics, discharge planners and doctors' offices," he said. "Pamphlets for patients work well--be sure to make it warm and inviting and include product photos, program information, contact info and a map of your location."

Raj Sandhu, group product manager for Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare's Personal Care and Standard Wheelchairs division, advises new HME retailers to start off with high-volume products like shower chairs and transfer benches "to get comfortable and gauge demand in your market before expanding your line."

Other suggested basics include grab bars, raised toilet seats, bathtub safety rails, bath seats and transfer benches. Setting up a showroom vignette also gives prospective customers an idea of how the products will look in their homes, de la Haba said.

"There is nothing like actually seeing how the products are to be installed and used to make a sale with a customer," he said. "In addition, the bathroom 'set' allows providers to sell more than one product."

Market trends

In looking at the market's future, Susan Grabel, marketing services rep for Oakdale, Pa.-based Clarke Health Care Products, says more consumers want easy access, portability and convenience.

"We are seeing bath safety products that don't need contractor installations, such as suction grab bars," she said. "Consumers and dealers want products that are easy to maintain and accessories that can be easily added after the initial sale."

Aesthetics are also important for bath safety products because they are critical to bathroom remodeling projects, de la Haba said.

"People spend tens of thousands of dollars on their bathroom and they don't want an 'ugly product' ruining the look of it," he said. "We are introducing new colors and better designed products in order to seamlessly integrate these products into people's bathrooms."

Norton says he hopes that the most significant trend is the home medical equipment industry's ownership of bath safety retail.

"Retail is the future and if DMEs don't become retailers, the big box retailers will," he said.