New York Times story savages HME industry

Sunday, December 2, 2007

NEW YORK CITY -- The New York Times ran a biased, error-filled article Friday that painted home oxygen providers as greedy entrepreneurs determined to suck every possible cent they can from Medicare, say industry watchers.

"It's amazing," said Cara Bachenheimer, Invacare's senior vice president of government relations. "This guy spent four months or more working on this story. You'd think he'd be somewhat educated."

It appears that the reporter who wrote the story, Charles Duhigg, had an agenda from the start, said Michael Reinemer, AAHomecare's vice president of communications. The story, "Oxygen Suppliers Fight to Keep a Medicare Boon", reiterates over and over that Medicare pays too much for home oxygen services. In crafting the story, Duhigg cherry picked facts, quoted numerous unnamed critics who spewed damning statements against oxygen providers and ignored information that the industry provided to him, said Reinemer and others.

"We're going to make some kind of response because he makes us sound like some devious organization," said Rod Bendell, president of The VGM Group.

The article contains so many inaccuracies that it's hard to know where to start addressing it, say industry sources. For example, Duhigg kicked off the expose by stating that an oxygen patient can walk into a retail pharmacy and order an oxygen set-up for less than half of what Medicare pays, which is incorrect, Bachenheimer pointed out.

"I'm not sure what he's talking about," she said. "That's illegal. It's a prescription drug. You can't just walk into your local CVS and say, 'Hey, I need a couple of tanks of oxygen.'"

Contacted by HME News Saturday morning, Duhigg declined to comment on the story, saying it stands or falls on its own merits.

Here are a few passages from the story:

-- Rather than buy oxygen equipment outright, Medicare rents it for 36 months before patients take ownership, and pays for a variety of services that critics say are often unnecessary.

-- Earlier this decade, legislators ordered the government agency to pay less and use the competitive bidding program. Then the oxygen industry started fighting back. Companies organized themselves into a deep-pocketed lobbying force that has defeated attempts to cut Medicare's rates, and has attacked the competitive bidding program.

-- Lawmakers have argued that companies are offering extra services to justify high fees.

-- While any industry can hire lobbyists, few can marshal tens of thousands of older citizens to accuse politicians of trying to take away their lifelines. That ability, say lawmakers and their staff members, is the real clout of home medical equipment companies and other industries that sell to the elderly.

-- "It doesn't seem sensible that a small industry should be able to manipulate the entire U.S. Congress into overpaying for oxygen," Representative (Pete) Stark said. "But that's the world we live in now."

The article could not have come at a worse time. This week the U.S. Senate is scheduled to begin hammering out a Medicare spending plan that avoids cutting reimbursement to doctors in 2008. That could include additional cuts to home oxygen therapy.

In fact, the timing of the article and the biased tone, say some industry watchers, strikes them as strange.

"He's been played," said one. "The question is: by who? I would like to know what promoted it. Why would Charles Duhigg write the article? What was the motivation behind writing about something he knew little or nothing about."

Late Friday afternoon, AAHomecare was preparing talking points for members. If the Times article appears in their local papers, they can use the talking points to write letters to the editor that rebut it. AAHomecare also plans to submit a letter to the editor to the Times, Reimemer said.

Wayne Stanfield, president and CEO of the National Association of Independent Medical Equipment Suppliers (NAIMES) has e-mailed the group's 53 members and some state associations, asking them to e-mail Duhigg and tell him the article is "inflammatory and incorrect."

Invacare plans to go to Capitol Hill next week and make sure legislators understand why the industry feels Duhigg's story is biased and one-sided, Bachenheimer said.

"The most important thing for us, as an industry, is to get our collective unified message about this story up on the Hill," she said. "I'm not as concerned about the general public, but to the extent that this furthers misconceptions on Capitol Hill when the Senate Finance Committee is putting together a Medicare package, that is where we need to focus our energies."

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