PWC outlook remains vibrant and optimistic

Thursday, August 31, 2006

CMS's new power wheelchair policy has made the process of securing Medicare coverage for clients more stringent and convoluted than ever. That means, going forward, there is a strong likelihood that fewer patients will be getting these products through the program.
As a result, the situation raises a number of questions regarding the future of power chairs, including:
- Will HME providers see the number of power chairs they furnish decline substantially?
- Will manufacturers continue their current pace of new power chair development and production?
- Will patients who would benefit from using a power chair be willing to dig into their pockets to pay for a product they don't qualify for under Medicare?
The answers to these questions may not be readily apparent in the short term, but there are indications that they will determine the power chair market's future. At this point, the outlook remains hopeful and optimistic that power chairs will remain an integral and vibrant part of the mobility industry.
"We're in a state of flux; we're preparing for a lot of change and at the same time there are a lot of people who need power chairs," said C.J. Copley, vice president of marketing for Old Forge, Pa.-based Golden Technologies. "These products are specifically designed to help people with mobility problems and that hasn't changed. What has changed is the billing process. So it's important that providers voice their opinions to the proper parties about the impact that these changes are having."
CMS recently finalized a new local coverage determination for power mobility devices that incorporates 64 new codes that were issued earlier this year. Each code grouping of power chairs now has a separate coverage criteria on top of the mobility assistive equipment nine-step algorithm. Chairs with one or more power positioning components also have specific coverage criteria and documentation requirements in order to qualify for a single power or multiple power option chair.
Vendors remain bullish
Prevailing opinion is that the more restrictive criteria will result in fewer patients qualifying for Medicare power chair coverage. But if the new rules signal a downturn in power chair provision, it hasn't tempered manufacturers' excitement about the product's future. The major mobility vendors are hopeful that new models showcased at their Medtrade booths will generate excitement. For instance, Exeter, Pa.-based Pride Mobility is trumpeting the Jazzy's 10th anniversary and unveiled a new version of the Jazzy at the show.
"Pride's strategy is to create high performing, high-quality power chairs at an excellent value that fall within the new codes implemented by Medicare, while supplying providers with a selection of additional items to help better meet their customers' needs and grow their businesses," company promotional materials stated.
Further, Pride is conducting a marketing campaign featuring its Silver Star lifts as an attractive companion product for providers to use as part of a complete mobility sales package.
Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare also has thrust a power chair into the Medtrade limelight: The TDX Total Driving eXperience SP, designed to fit within the scaled-back reimbursement environment. The company is also touting its 5-Star Service Plan, designed to give providers another option in delivering service to power chair and scooter customers.
Likewise, Carson, Calif.-based Shoprider has introduced the second generation of its Smartie power chairs, which at 93 pounds has great retail potential, said President David Lin.
"I heard one story of a customer buying it on the spot after seeing that the chair can be assembled and taken apart without an engineering degree," he said.
Ramping up retail
Copley maintains that Golden Technologies has long viewed power chairs as having legitimate retail appeal and that they will ultimately rival scooters as a sought-after consumer product.
"As we've continued to design power chairs that are more attractive and exciting, the value increases in the eyes of the cash consumer," he said. "It becomes a question of whether the person is more comfortable using two hands on a tiller or one hand on a joystick."
New companies, like Delafield, Wis.-based MobiLife, are approaching the market with a fresh perspective. Mechanical engineer Steve DuFresne has been developing his Raizer 22 chair for nearly two years and doesn't consider it to be a "power chair" per se, so he came up with a new label--personal mobility vehicle.
"There should be a new category name--power chairs, manual chairs and standing chairs are all personal mobility vehicles," he said.
The Raizer 22 has a vertical lift that elevates the user 22 inches. DuFresne got the idea when a friend, after being paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, abandoned his quest to be a pharmacist because the job required him to stand.
"I thought that was terrible," DuFresne said. "It made me realize that we live in a walking world and that there was a need for a three-dimensional level mobility product."