Rocketing prices pinch providers

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gas prices have backed off a bit from record highs earlier this summer, but with a gallon of gas averaging $3.90 at press time, providers are looking hard at their delivery schedules.

“We are regulating whether something is a true emergency or if we can put it on a second run,” said Georgie Blackburn, vice president of government relations and legislative affairs for Tarentum, Pa.-based Blackburn’s. “In the past we were more apt to hurry up and deliver.”

Better routing and well-stocked vans increase efficiency and save money, and providers are increasingly embracing GPS in order to plan more efficiently. Terry Luft, president of Central Medical Equipment in Harrisburg, Pa., installed GPS in his fleet of vans in the last six months.

“If we can save one delivery a day or be more efficient, it will pay for the units,” he said. “The trucks are better equipped with some standard products so if a patient needs a new walker or commode, it’s there.”

Soaring gas prices don’t just affect providers at the pump, said Glen Steinke, owner of Air-Way Medical in Bishop. Calif.

“To get free freight, I used to have to order around $300 (worth of new product), but now there’s an $800 minimum order to get free freight,” he said. “I guess the big boys can pull that off, but I can’t.”

Despite higher costs, most providers remain reluctant to charge patients delivery fees.

“We actually instituted a fee a couple of years ago,” said Gary Gilberti, president of Chesapeake Rehab Equipment in Chesapeake, Va. “Some people complained; some understood. But it doesn’t make a huge difference.”

Encouraging patients to come in for repairs and service eases some of the burden.

“For most of the products that can be brought in, like wheelchairs, we encourage them,” said Blackburn. “We make them comfortable with coffee and doughnuts.”

Some providers are willing to consider the bigger picture. While natural gas and biodiesel might seem like far-off notions, reducing dependence on foreign oil helps the bottom line, and it is better for the environment, says Raul Lopez, operations manager for Bayshore Dura Medical in Miami Lakes, Fla.

“A big old diesel box truck is lucky if it gets 8 miles to the gallon,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the natural gas vehicles get 22 or 23 miles to the gallon. That’s a substantial savings, even though, initially, you have more cost upfront.”