Meet the only congressman who owns an HME company

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

PRESCOTT, Ark. - HME providers typically get frustrated during lobbying visits to Capitol Hill because the industry is widely misunderstood by Congress. Not only do they constantly hear the negative stereotypes, their explanations about HME’s role in healthcare are often met with vacant stares.

But anyone visiting Rep. Mike Ross’s office most likely gets a pleasant surprise. Not only does he understand the HME industry, he is part of the HME industry and supports its agenda. For instance, he was one of 215 representatives voting against HR 1, the House version of the Medicare Reform Act that contained a competitive bidding provision.

The Arkansas Democrat owns Holly’s Health Mart, an independent pharmacy and HME store in Prescott, a town of about 3,000. Ross and his wife, Holly, a registered pharmacist, bought the 92-year-old business in 1993. He is the only federal legislator to own a pharmacy and HME business and thus, has an empathy factor like no one else in Congress.

“I appreciate the value HME providers offer because I’ve seen people come home from the hospital sooner and kept out of nursing homes,” Ross said. “As someone who has delivered concentrators and set up hospital beds at 1 a.m., I know it’s not a 9-to-5 job and I have a great deal of respect for [the profession].”

Ross launched the HME business in 1995, drawing upon his experience as a sales manager for San Francisco-based McKesson.

“As a pharmaceutical rep, I traveled around to pharmacies and saw what worked and what didn’t,” he said.

Holly’s DME Manager Kay Hendrix pre-dates the Ross era at the store and said the HME staff comprised “just Mike and I” when it started. That meant dedicating a lot of energy to getting the business off the ground, and she said he was definitely up for the challenge.

“He took the ball and ran with it,” she said. “When he decides to do something, he focuses on it 24-7. He didn’t go into it with a few pieces – he wanted to be a full line medical equipment provider.”

A member of the Medical Equipment Suppliers Association (the regional association for Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma) and honorary AAHomecare member, the company offers durable medical equipment, oxygen and IV therapy in addition to pharmacy services. The store now employs three full-time staff members dedicated to HME.

Now in his second term in the U.S. House, Ross previously served 10 years in the Arkansas State Senate. In 2000, he unseated a four-term incumbent to win the House race. Not surprisingly, healthcare was a major plank in his campaign platform.

“One thing that inspired me to run was that I was sick and tired of seeing seniors come into our pharmacy and not be able to afford their medications,” he said.

As an HME provider, Ross also has issues with the Medicare system.

“There is an enormous amount of paperwork associated with Medicare – it has more regulations that the U.S. Tax Code,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if someone is buying a motorized wheelchair or a simple cane, the amount of paperwork is the same. For every person we have delivering equipment, there are two handling the paperwork. We should guard against fraud and abuse, but we should do it in a way that brings common sense to the table and cuts down on the paperwork.”

When it comes to national competitive bidding for Medicare, Ross certainly sounds like someone with roots in HME.

“I’m opposed to competitive bidding – the patient should be able to choose an HME provider just like a doctor or hospital,” he said. “Simply handing out the HME business to the lowest bidder is not fair to providers and not fair to patients.”

Legislators advocating competitive bidding, such as Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) “don’t understand the business,” said Ross, who is using his position to educate legislators about the HME industry.

“There is too much focus on how much HME costs Medicare,” he said. “I tell them they should be looking at how much HME services save Medicare.”

Ross maintains regular contact with CMS and has presented Director Tom Scully with the industry’s point of view on a host of issues.

“Tom and I have had a few meetings and they’ve always been cordial,” Ross said. “I don’t agree with his thinking on Medicare reform, but I’m trying to change his opinion.”