November elections may change dynamics on Capitol Hill for HMEs

Thursday, October 31, 2002

It now appears that both Houses of Congress will go home to campaign without having acted upon Medicare issues as well as other important matters. They will reconvene on November 12 after the election. It seems that post-election or "lame duck" sessions are becoming the rule rather than the exception. This means that many members who are defeated on November 5 will be making laws a few weeks later that will govern us for some time to come.

This particular lame duck session could be very unusual. It is conceivable that the Democrats could win control of the Republican House of Representatives or that the Republicans could win control of the Democratic Senate. The winner would not be able to take control, however, during the lame duck session, since the new members would not replace the old ones until January. In the Senate, the situation could be stranger yet. The Democrats could win enough seats to retain control in 2002, but Senator Jean Carnahan (D-MO), who was appointed by the Governor to replace her late husband, is running in a "special election." If her opponent, Congressman Jim Talent, wins, he would be sworn in immediately, and the Democratic margin of one vote in the Senate would disappear until January. The Senate would be split 50/50, and Vice President Cheney would be the tiebreaker. Thus the Senate would be Republican for the lame duck session, and theoretically Senator Lott could claim his place as majority leader and insist the Committees be reorganized with Republicans as chairmen.

All of this makes it very difficult to predict what will happen during the lame duck session. And anticipating what will happen with Medicare issues, and more particularly competitive bidding, which stands to have a major impact upon the home medical equipment industry is even harder. The talk at the moment is that very little business will be conducted in the lame duck session. However, providers need relief, and there will be continued pressure to move a Medicare bill even in what may be a very strange atmosphere.

In view of all this uncertainty, there is only one thing the HME industry can do: to continue pounding and pounding upon our message that competitive bidding would have a profoundly negative impact on beneficiaries and small businesses.

Over the last several months that message has begun to get through to members of Congress. Recently, a very senior Senate staffer on the Senate Finance Committee told a major trade association that grass roots activities on competitive bidding hit the Senate like a "lightening bolt." At AAHomecare, we are not surprised by this statement. Two hundred sixty-five providers came to Washington and lobbied their Senators and Congressmen on September 18. State Associations have been setting up meetings for their members with Senators and Congressman throughout the summer and the fall. Thousands and thousands of letters and postcards have been sent to Congress. Indeed, our records show that during the last two months people were utilizing the "Capitol Connection" on our Web page, (a site that enables people to easily communicate with their legislators) at least once every ten minutes.

Our industry has been winning over a number of members in both the House and Senate who are willing to stand up to those who are proponents of competitive bidding. Tired as we all may be, we must continue our efforts to add to those numbers and keep the noise levels extremely high during the next several weeks. We must take advantage of this time around the election to win more allies to help accomplish our goals.

I must add that I have been so very impressed by the number of providers who have stood up and jumped into the fray. I am also very grateful to a number of companies that have provided funding for AAHomecare on this battle and hired lobbyists of their own to help us. We will continue to lobby, fully utilizing our staff and consultants. We will continue to work with other providers, manufacturers, and consumer organizations in the AAHomecare-led Coalition for Access to Medical Equipment Services and Technologies (CAMSET) to spread the word about competitive bidding. There has been a massive effort to defeat the legislative proposals to establish a national competitive bidding program for HME, and that effort must continue at all levels.

Tom Connaughton is president and CEO of AAHomecare.