Pontius vows: ‘No one will work harder’ at AAH

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Newly elected AAHomecare Chairman Tim Pontius is pledging to work his “hind end off” for association members and will bring the same high level of intensity and dedication to his new job that he is known for among his industry peers.

The president of Young Medical Services and Toledo (Ohio) IV Care has earned a reputation as a tenacious HME advocate who works tirelessly on his constituents’ behalf. As chairman of the Region B Council, he has squared off against Dr. Adrian Oleck, who has earned a reputation as the DMERCs’ toughest medical director.

“We got into a shouting match on our first meeting – and it wasn’t the last,” Pontius said. “Although it frequently got heated, things never got personal. We’d always simmer down and end up agreeing to disagree.”

Pontius’ resilience can be attributed in part to a hardscrabble upbringing in rural southeast Ohio, where the family farm had no electricity or running water.

“It sounds corny, but it’s true – we didn’t really have a whole lot,” Pontius said. “Anyone who’s been to this part of Ohio knows it’s where Appalachia begins.”

Originally setting his sights on becoming a pharmacist, Pontius detoured into the HME industry in 1978, earning an associate’s degree in respiratory therapy and going to work for R.C. Young in Toledo. By 1981, he worked his way up to operations manager and was one of the first homecare respiratory therapists in the state.

“We grew very nicely during those years, and it was at that time Mr. Young encouraged me to get involved at the state association level,” Pontius recalled. “That started it off for me – I got on the board of directors and served as president of the Ohio association and subsequently increased my participation at (AAHomecare’s forerunner) NAMES.”

Pontius takes great pride in pointing out that an independent provider has the reins at AAHomecare this year, because “90% of the marketplace is independents.” Yet independents also represent most casualties in the business and Pontius credits his association involvement for his company’s stamina and growth during the harshest of economic times

“If you participate at the state and national level, you will ultimately get out of it everything you’ve put in,” he said. “The more I participate, the more committed I get. The relationships I’ve developed and the amount of information I’ve obtained from meetings and committees has given me the ability to plan ahead when a cut is inevitable. You can look at the worst-case scenario in your business and plan accordingly.”

And while Pontius believes that self-determination through best business practices like activity-based management is the key to success in the HME business, he acknowledges that the government is integral to the industry’s vitality. Thus, he recognizes the importance of sound interaction with agencies like CMS and says the industry can do more to make these communications more constructive.

“First, we’ve got to get away from the whining,” Pontius said. “One thing I’ve found in the last year is that if we can quantify the value of our products and services, CMS will listen. [Former CMS director Tom] Scully told me two years ago that they don’t expect us to work for nothing. So they’re willing to look at things, but we have to quantify them.”

To present compelling evidence, HME providers need to be more willing to share the data they collect. By aggregating clinical and outcomes data, a groups like AAHomecare and the COPD Caucus can make more convincing arguments about homecare’s value to legislative adversaries like Rep. Bill Thomas, Pontius said.

“If we can show how COPD will be a major cause of death by 2020 and how respiratory therapy is a profession, not an occupation, it will establish long-term stability for reimbursement,” he said. “That’s a realistic goal.”

Pontius added that the HME industry also needs to get the public more involved in lobbying efforts to show that providers are legitimate caregivers and not just out to protect their own interests.

“It’s one thing for us to talk to a congressman, but we need his constituents to come in with the message,” he said. “It becomes less of a self-serving issue at that point.”

Gaining patients’ support means conveying it to them at the simplest level: that providers offer accessibility to goods and services.

“When we ask patients what they value about what we do, they mention all the services we do for them,” Pontius said. “Explain to them what the proposed cuts will do to those services. Put it on a personal level.”

As government mandates continually threaten HME companies’ fiscal health, many small providers are expected to either sell their businesses or fold altogether. Pontius urges restraint in making such a major decision, suggesting that the owners consider why they opened in the first place.

“Look at the people in your community and think about who will take care of them if you leave,” he said. “With all due respect to the nationals, it’s the independents who do it best. Healthcare is a local issue, and we care about our communities.”