NPR reports on power chair utilization

Friday, December 31, 2004

WASHINGTON - An HME industry issue found its way into the mainstream media again in December when National Public Radio’s daily news program All Things Considered featured a Scooter Store customer and a look at power wheelchair utilization.

The story focused its attention on Johnny Arbaugh, a 72-year-old retired farmer who suffered a stroke this year that affected his mobility. That is, until the Scooter Store stepped in.

“Arbaugh called the 1-800 number on a Thursday, the Scooter Store got his doctor’s signature on Friday, and on Tuesday the chair was delivered to his remote rural address,” said NPR reporter Joseph Shapiro in the story.

The story also touch on CMS’s battle with the rising utilization of the benefit, citing OIG findings that indicate only 13% of power wheelchair recipients meet Medicare coverage criteria.

“We thought the story was pretty balanced in terms of NPR doing a good job of articulating the state of the industry over the past couple of years and the rise in claims,” said the Scooter Store’s Dan Gibbens, vice president of marketing.

An interview with Scooter Store President Doug Harrison during a lobbying trip to Washington last March was also featured in the story. Harrison talked about the important service his company offers in “changing lives.” The story also touched on some problems the supplier is facing, including profits, losses and layoffs.

“There may be more trouble coming,” said Shapiro during the report. “The FBI has gone after fraud and abuse in the wheelchair business. Harrison says his company helped the FBI go after phony dealers. But a year ago, agents started talking to Scooter Store employees. It’s not clear why. A spokesman for the FBI says the investigation is still going on.”

This focus on the Scooter Store, the industry’s largest supplier, has sparked some retorts from the industry. Some say NPR did not clearly depict the industry as a whole by focusing on The Scooter Store’s particular niche.

“It’s almost as if it was more a story about the Scooter Store, and the Scooter Store is a great story because it’s rags to riches and maybe back to rags, but it doesn’t portray the industry and profession appropriately,” said Simon Margolis, vice president for clinical and professional development at National Seating and Mobility.

Dan Lipka, NRRT’s president, in his e-mailed response to NPR, argued that Arbaugh’s is not a typical case and that such quick delivery of power mobility is often a “recipe for disaster.”

“For people with complex or degenerative medical condition, power wheelchairs are NOT a simple commodity that can be ordered over the phone or from an Internet based or catalog supplier,” he wrote. “I would hope that you would do a follow up to this story on the many disabled Medicare beneficiaries (and others) who have not been as lucky as Mr. Arbaugh.”

Margolis added that he hopes stories like NPR’s will continue to galvanize the industry and bring its work to the forefront.

“Hopefully we will see more solidarity in the need for organizations like NCART and NRRTS and RESNA to get out there in front and help us get to the point where when a reporter thinks about wheelchairs they don’t think about the Scooter Store first,” he said.