Schwarz vows to fight for oxygen patients

Sunday, June 25, 2006

WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., kicked off AAHomecare's annual Legislative Fly-in last week with a promise to do whatever it takes to repeal Medicare's new 36-month cap on oxygen reimbursement.

"I promise you I will do my very best," said Schwarz, who co-sponsored H.R. 5513, the Home Oxygen Patient Protection Act, which if passed would repeal the cap. "We are going to get this bill through; it makes eminent sense."

Schwarz, who is one of nine doctors in the U.S. House of Representatives, made his comments Tuesday morning as part of his keynote address to about 150 attendees. If there was one drawback to his keynote, it's that so few people heard it. Ten years ago, when the industry faced much less onerous challenges, three to four times as many people attended the lobbying event, according to AAHomecare executive board member Tim Pontius.

"There are too many people who work in this industry and feel that it is someone else's job to fix their problems," he said.

So--when faced with issues like competitive bidding, the oxygen cap and new coding for power mobility devices--why did so few providers attend the conference? After all, competitive bidding could, by some estimates, eliminate half of all HME providers.

"I don't think we know why," Pontius said. "If it were apathy, we could try to make them not so apathetic. It's almost like there is an illness."

"I think some people have thrown in the towel," said attendee Tim Pederson, CEO of WestMed Rehab in Rapid City, S.D. "Some may think it's hopeless, but it is not. Rep. Schwarz showed it is not."

Some attendees surmised that, with limited dollars to spend on travel, providers have opted to spend that money to attend other events.

Despite being a "bit disappointed" at the attendance, AAHomecare Chairman Tom Ryan called the event "very positive." Attendees did a good job lobbying for H.R. 5513 and the Hobson-Tanner Bill, which lawmakers designed to lessen the blow of competitive bidding on small HME providers--those with annual revenues of $6 million or less.

"Even though the numbers were what they were, I think the people who were on the Hill knew how to lobby and did a very good job," Ryan said.

In all, the 150 attendees conducted more than 250 meetings with members of the House and Senate to discuss key issues: the Hobson-Tanner Bill (H.R. 3559), the Home Oxygen Patient Protection Act (H.R. 5513), the importance of the home health inflation update, and coding and gap-filling issues for power mobility. Several oxygen patients attended congressional meetings along with provider delegations.

During his keynote, Schwarz said the provision in the Deficit Reduction Act that forces oxygen beneficiaries to assume ownership and responsibility for equipment after 36 months "bothered me a great deal. I discussed this with the other physicians and decided we need to delete the language."

Late last month, Schwarz introduced H.R. 5513 along with fellow physician and U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. Schwarz said if his bill does not pass in the current session of Congress, he will introduce it on "day one" of the next session. His bill has eight co-sponsors so far: Reps. John McHugh, R-N.Y.; David Hobson, R-Ohio; Ralph Regula, R-Ohio; Tim Ryan, D-Ohio; Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio; Paul Kanjorski, D-Penn.; and Rick Boucher, D-Va.

"We can win this--if we commit to action and we build a strong network of advocates," Ryan said.