Seat lift chair dealers seek alternative referral sources

Sunday, March 31, 2002

Referral sources for seat lift chairs? That's a cash-and-carry item physicians and discharge planners don't even think about, let alone recommend to patients. Whoever heard of marketing seat lift chairs to referral sources?

Plenty of savvy HME dealers, that's who. Even though clinician referrals dried up when Medicare dropped most of its coverage for seat lift chairs years ago, successful chair retailers have learned to become very resourceful in plugging into alternative referral channels. Among them: assisted living centers, local senior community centers, social service agencies and good "buzz" from satisfied customers.

Dana LaFrance, HME sales manager for the Sterling Heights, Mich.-based Familymeds Pharmacy says he uses them all to gain clients.

Because he circulates his name to senior gathering spots around town, he's never surprised when someone walks in the door carrying his worn-out, dog-eared business card, he said.

"The cards definitely get passed around," LaFrance said. "All it takes is to get them through the door. We take it from there."

The formula seems to work well, given that the Sterling Heights store sold about 250 chairs last year, he said.

One of the best sources for referrals comes from a local social service organization called a Family Independent Agency. The FIA administers a state-funded program that buys medical equipment for seniors who for some reason don't qualify for Medicare or Medicaid coverage and can't afford to purchase the product.

"They send people to me all the time," LaFrance said. "I'd guess that about 30% of my seat lift chair sales come from them."

LaFrance says Familymeds' long-standing reputation in the community gained the FIA's trust and confidence.

"We provide the best customer service," he said. "We take the time to show them the chair and explain every facet about it. They know what they're buying."

Other promising referral sources are non-profit associations that serve disabled populations. For instance, the White Plains, N.Y.-based Home Care Solutions has close ties with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and ALS Association.

"We have great relations with them, and they send us a good amount of business," said manager Doug Walsh. "They know we'll take good care of their constituents."

McCord Sweeney Drug is a fixture in the small town of Lowell, Mass., and since the 1940s, it has long been known as a "go-to" place for healthcare equipment.

In fact, that's why owner David Beaudette kept the name after he bought the store last year.

Since small town grapevines typically spread news faster than the local media, Beaudette is a firm believer in word-of-mouth marketing. He even belongs to a group called Business Networkers International, comprised of small businesses that rely solely on word-of-mouth promotion.

"Our specific chapter is against advertising - the feeling is that if you have to use TV, radio or magazines, you're trying to attract customers for a reason other than serving them to the best of your ability," Beaudette said. "Our motto is 'Please tell a friend.' And lots of people do."

Not all McCord Sweeney's referrals come from its customer base, however. Beaudette also sponsors inservices at assisted living and senior centers. The purpose of the sessions, he says, is to build credibility.

"We want to educate consumers - not pressure, but educate," he said. "Sometimes we don't get a sale because we don't accept insurance, but we are visible in the community."

Even with missed sales, Beaudette's strategy has reportedly generated sales of four lift chairs a week on average. He makes all the deliveries himself as well.

The clinical community isn't totally a non-factor in providing referrals for lift chairs, either. Because Medicare will pay for the lift mechanism in certain instances, Charlie Johnston, owner of the Bronx, N.Y.-based King Medical says he gets steady referrals from physician clinics.

"Medicare reimburses $313 for the lifts and probably about 70% of our customers get that money back," he said. "We have chairs priced at $595, so with the covered amount, it's not bad."

Qualifying for the Medicare lift mechanism coverage requires a CMN stating that a patient cannot sit or stand without assistance because of rheumatoid arthritis or arthritis in the knees or hips, Johnston said.

In relating that information to clinical referral sources, Johnston says he makes sure to tell them that coverage isn't guaranteed.

"I'm totally honest with them," he said. "I tell them that there's a chance Medicare may not pay for it."

Indeed, Medicare's mechanism-only coverage policy baffles many prospective customers, says Dick Upham, owner of the Waterville, Maine-based Medical Supplies.

"When people come in with a valid prescription for the chair, it's hard telling them that Medicare only pays for the lift," he said. "They look at me like I'm nuts."

The recently sanctioned Advance Beneficiary Notice upgrade provision for Medicare beneficiaries may help though, Upham added.

"Of course the upgrade is very new, so it's premature to determine the impact yet," he said

Johnston sees portable seat lift devices as a potential solution to clearing up the customer confusion as well as generating more clinical referrals.

Since King Medical started carrying the device about four months ago, it has piqued physician interest, he said.

Fastened to a full back chair, the seat lift performs the same elevating and lowering functions as the recliner. It is fully reimbursable under code EO629, for which Medicare will reportedly pay up to $295. Johnston has them priced at around $190, however.

"Even though Medicare will pay the $295 amount, we can sell them for a lower price and still get a good mark-up," he said. HME