Providers hit airwaves to fight oxygen cap

Sunday, January 22, 2006

YARMOUTH, Maine - Although Brian Williams from NBC Nightly News hasn't called yet, providers lobbying against the proposed cap on oxygen have caught the attention of local media outlets.

WAVY-10, a TV station in Portsmouth, Va., aired a news story on Jan. 12 that featured provider Tom Inman and one of his customers, Betty Hotchkin, who has been using oxygen for five years.

In the story, Inman and Hotchkin describe their concerns over how Medicare beneficiaries will be able to afford oxygen therapy after 36 months. Under the proposal, Medicare will cap reimbursement and transfer title of the equipment to them at that time.

The station ran the story as part of a "10 on Your Side" series, which it promotes on its Web site with, "Ripped off? Swindled? WAVY is on your side! We'll fight for your rights."

"Typically, when '10 on Your Side' calls you, you've done something wrong," said Inman, president of Virginia Home Medical in Newport News, Va. "In this particular case, the industry was portrayed in a positive light, and the story focused on the beneficiary, which is the point of (the grass roots effort)."

Both the Senate and House have already approved the proposal as part of a deficit reduction bill. However, because the Senate made some minor changes to the bill, the House must vote on it again, probably on Feb. 1.

Buoyed by AAHomecare, state associations and member groups, providers are using the time between late December and February to lobby representatives, often arm-in-arm with beneficiaries. Their message to representatives: Don't approve the bill the second time around.

A radio talk show in Mount Vernon, Ohio, on Jan. 17 interviewed provider Ary Van Harlingen about the oxygen cap. At the close of the show, host Tom Cooper, a lawyer and "advocate for the older generation," encouraged listeners to call their representatives.

"(Cooper) said this bill--not just the oxygen cap but the whole thing--is the worst thing that could happen to Medicare beneficiaries," said Van Harlingen, president of Shaw & Ott Medical Supplies in Mansfield, Ohio.

Since the WAVY-10 news segment ran, Inman has received anywhere from six to 12 calls a day from upset customers who want to know more about the proposal. Many of them say their next call will be to their representatives' offices.

Both AAHomecare and the VGM Group have posted the segment on their Web sites.

Beth Bowen, executive director of the Virginia and North Carolina HME associations, said the proposal to cap oxygen has mobilized providers--and probably more importantly, beneficiaries--like never before, resulting in increased attention from all directions.

"Maybe Bill Thomas thought he could put the final screw to us, but I think it's going to backfire," she said. "The bill will probably go through, but with all this flak, the industry has more energy to change it after the fact."