Senior Wheels spins free ads

Monday, September 30, 2002

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Senior Wheels USA, a for-profit K0011 wheelchair business run by Jaspan Medical here, is drawing criticism from rehab professionals who say the company is masquerading as a not-for-profit entity with public service type-articles in newspapers.

The articles are spawned by press releases sent to the editorial desks of community newspapers around the country and billed as "community news." An Aug. 2001 release from Miracle on Wheels (aka Senior Wheels) touts that the self-described "program" makes power wheelchairs available to seniors "usually at no out-of-pocket expense" to qualifying Medicare beneficiaries.

Nowhere in the release, or in any of the articles obtained by HME News, does Senior Wheels disclose that it is a for-profit enterprise run by Jaspan Medical.

When asked why Senior Wheels didn't disclose that it was a for-profit business in the releases it sent to newspapers, Joe Cohn, a Senior Wheels employee declined to answer and then hung up.

Brian Haimovitz, program director of Senior Wheels / Miracle on Wheels and owner of Jaspan Medical, also declined to say why his company did not disclose it was a for-profit business in its communication with community newspapers.

"What's the advantage?" asked Haimovitz, questioning this paper's interest in the issue. "To write a story about whether [Senior Wheels is] for profit or not for profit. What advantage would it be to broadcast this to DMEs?"

To DMEs like Grogan's Healthcare Supply in Lexington, Ky., and Majors Mobility in Topsham, Maine, it matters a lot since Grogan's provides power wheelchairs to Medicare beneficiaries and has to pay for advertising in those same newspapers.

"They don't say they're a business," said Alan Grogan. "They make it sound like they're a social program run by the Red Cross."

Meals on Wheels is a non-profit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger among needy seniors.

Large newspapers typically confirm the not-for-profit status of programs seeking editorial coverage in its pages; smaller, community-based newspapers that lack resources often run such self-promotion as news without confirmation.

When Grogan contacted his local newspaper to complain about the Senior Wheels article several months ago, he said his newspaper editors said they would stand by their story and not run a retraction.

"I wrote letters to all their publishers and they didn't care," he said.

In Topsham, Maine, Tyrrell Hunter at Majors Mobility had better luck. The local newspaper ran a letter to the editor that took the paper to task for misleading the public.

"If we want free publicity, should we just submit a press release to your newspaper and you will run it no matter what we are promoting," she wrote. "I thought press releases were supposed to be newsworthy - not self-promotional."

Hunter said numerous seniors in her market have received power wheelchairs from Jaspan Medical and that those seniors complain when they can't get service from the California-based company. Majors Mobility has declined to provide service to consumers who buy from Internet and 800-number retailers.

Hunter thought she'd leveled the playing field with Miracle on Wheels when her article ran, but then the management at her local paper changed, and another article from the not-for-profit-looking Jaspan Medical ran in her paper again.

"From what I can see, they're putting these out every six months to a year," said Hunter. "How they [CMS] let something like this go on?"

Although Jaspan Medical declined to answer questions about its marketing campaign to local newspapers, its reach appears to be national and systematic, from Maine to Kentucky to Idaho. Haimovitz doesn't have a problem marketing his business this way.

"We have people write stories about us," he said. "They tell the story that we are able to help people that are unable to walk or unable to self-propel. What else does it need to be further than that?"

In response to criticism from rehab pros who believe his marketing practices are unethical, he said, "NRRTS is sort of an arch enemy. They are an advocate against us."

Rehab professionals also take Senior Wheels to task for promoting power wheelchairs at "no out-of-pocket expense" since Medicare beneficiaries are obliged to make co-payments.

Senior Wheels' Cohn readily admits that the business waives co-payments in hardship cases. "There must be insurance that covers the portion of the cost," he said. "We'll pick up the balance of the cost."

Another Senior Wheels program manager, Tony Cresta, said the same thing: "With Medicare, we have to put in for all of it. But if there's a hardship, and they can't pay, then they don't and we eat that."

Tim Hill, CMS's director of program integrity confirmed that power wheelchair dealers can waive co-payments in case of hardship. But "no company can say that you don't have to pay the co-pay."

What then to make of Miracle on Wheels marketing pitch about making power wheel chairs available to qualifying seniors "usually at no out-of-pocket expense"?

Haimovitz said his paperwork is the very best in the industry: "We don't have any problems with Medicare. We've gone through the hardest reviews you can ever imagine. We're clean. We do things by the book." HME