Shoprider battery weighs less, costs more

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

CARSON, Calif. - Shoprider's new 24-volt lithium-iron battery weighs 6 pounds and potentially has a much longer life than a comparable sealed gel battery that tips the scale at 25 pounds. That's the good news.
The not-so good, or more precisely, problematic news: The advanced technology currently costs about five times as much as a conventional wheelchair battery, and, as of yet, Medicare doesn't offer sufficient reimbursement.
That's a problem Shoprider has begun to tackle by approaching CMS about a possible code for its battery, said President David Lin.
Initially, however, the lack of a HCPCS code hasn't hurt sales. Shoprider introduced the new lithium battery at Medtrade last October on its K0011 Smartie portable wheelchair. Since then, the 93-pound chair has been on perpetual back order.
"We can't keep it in stock," Lin said. "We keep receiving shipments, but it is not enough to satisfy the market. That is a good problem to have."
The chair, buoyed by its lightweight battery, caters to the consumer's demand for portability, he added.
Currently, only Shoprider offers a lithium battery on a power wheelchair--it's included in the price of a Smartie. Graham-Field has a lithium battery in development. In more mainstream applications, the two-wheeled Segway scooter uses a lithium battery, as do many clocks.
In the rehab industry, however, while many acknowledge the lithium battery's great potential, they also call the technology too new and untested to install on wheelchairs or scooters.
"We'd like to see how the chemistry performs," said MK Battery's Dennis Sharp. "It is new and there have been things in the past that have been problematic. But if Shoprider has enough history on it, they may have it figured out."
While no historical data exists with regards to how lithium batteries perform on mobility equipment, laboratory tests indicated that they have the potential to last much longer than sealed gel batteries. Some say the battery could last four to five years.
Medicare allows wheelchair users to bill for a new battery each year. That repeat business appeals to some providers. Others say, however, that if a battery lasted longer and could save them an annual trip to a customer's home, that's good for everyone.
Until recently, Joe Ticer served as Graham-Field's director of rehab and mobility. When it comes to lithium batteries, he said, cost is the biggest barrier to market acceptance.
"But as that is overcome, I think the benefits far outweigh the cost downside," he said. "It is exciting, forward-looking technology, and in the next five years I think it will be commonplace."