Strategies differ for lightweight, sports chairs

Thursday, February 28, 2002

The line distinguishing lightweight wheelchairs from sport chairs has been gradually un-blurring in recent years and as a result, marketing tactics have become more distinct for each segment, mobility providers say.

For instance, sports chairs - deemed by payers as luxury items - are cash products, so it requires reaching out directly to the end-user. Lightweight chairs, of which there are several categories, are more reimbursable, so traditional referral sources are part of the sales channel. Overall though, those in the market say it boils down to assessing each situation.

"There really aren't any conventional referral sources for the sport chair market," said Nancy Lansing, RN, director of marketing and contracting for Connecticut Rehab's Assistive Technology Group. "We're dealing directly with the athletes and athletic associations."

To connect with the wheelchair athlete, Lansing said the Wallingford, Conn.-based provider is involved with the local athletic community, maintaining a high profile at wheelchair sports events.

Wheelchair Works of Milwaukie, Ore., sponsored a wheelchair basketball team as well as employing wheelchair athletes, but CEO David Kruse said that his store doesn't typically get many high-end athletes as wheelchair customers. Both Lansing and Kruse say that serious athletes tend to get their chairs as part of manufacturer sponsorship or through the Internet, but that they regularly stop in to buy tires, pumps and other accessories.

Lightweights, grouped by weight into three categories - standard, high-strength and ultra light - all face a reimbursement gauntlet from payers, especially those perceived to be "sport" chairs, Kruse said. So to make the chairs more acceptable to payers, vendors are reportedly removing any reference to sport from lightweight nameplates.

"A titanium chair that used to be a sport chair is now an ultra-light," Kruse said. "All of a sudden there's no red flag."

Because southeastern Florida's population is predominantly elderly, Bob Lichtenstein isn't focusing his business on the sport chair. However, he's trying to build lightweight chair sales and says he still sees payer reluctance.

"It's a major concern because reimbursement is difficult ­ especially for the (HCPCS code) K0005 class," said Lichtenstein, president of Hollywood Medical Supply, north of Miami. "We're determined to find payer sources and are hopeful that the proposed (Medicare) beneficiary upgrade provision will help boost sales of lightweight chairs."

Referral sources for lightweight chairs tend to be case managers, physical therapists and occupational therapists, though re/hab and visiting nurses are also cited as part of the mix. Re/hab specialist Jamie Lacourse says she's encouraged by a growing interest in lightweight chairs among referral sources.

"The younger PTs and nurses are going to the re/hab shows," said Lacourse, a certified rehab technology supplier with Hudson, N. H.-based Advent Medical. "They're investing their time learning about these chairs."

This enthusiasm for the product makes it easier to demonstrate Advent's strengths as a re/hab provider, she said, especially when it comes to meeting mobility needs.

"I show them which technology is most appropriate for each client," Lacourse said. "It comes down to knowing the product, its cost and what the payer will accept."

Because getting reimbursement is tricky, referral sources play a key role in assessment, said Advent President Charles Freiberger.

"The payer wants to know why the chair is essential, so we need to get extensive statements about the patient's lifestyle," he said.

What's more, recognizing the little details that gain reimbursement is a valuable skill that referral sources appreciate, Lacourse said.

"I know which additional features are warranted on the chairs ­ whether it be height adjustable arms or better suspension," she said. "Take quick-release axles for example. They are well worth the extra $85 because they allow the patient to store the chair himself."

Knowing how to interact with referral sources is significant, too, Kruse said, because personality types demand different behaviors.

"If you're running an assessment with a therapist who has just graduated, you may be called upon to take the lead," he said. "Those with years of experience may just want you to sit back and listen to them talk about what they think works best. It comes down to relationships and understanding the person you're working with."

Interacting with referral sources on product evaluations is certainly an ideal relationship builder, observes W. B. Mick, director of the MED Group's National Re/hab Network in Boise, Idaho. By sharing information, both sides can learn what the other is looking for.

To help its provider members strengthen bonds with referral sources, the MED Group has established a credentialed training program called MED University. Attracted by the continuing education unit credits, clinicians are generally very receptive to learning about how re/hab technology benefits their patients, Mick said.

"It's a way to educate your referral sources about your company, your product line and the services you offer," he said.

The re/hab network also offers a quarterly newsletter called Re/hab Review that members can send to their referral sources. Typical stories explore new product improvements and innovations in seating and positioning.

Professional knowledge in the form of certification and affiliation with a credentialing body like the National Registry of Rehabilitation Technology Suppliers also go a long way in impressing referral sources, said Kruse, who is currently serves as NRRTS president.

"We push our credentials," he said. "It shows that we have taken an exam and are involved in this society. Once referral sources see this, they know that we're dedicated to re/hab."

More than anything, however, the provider has to inspire confidence in the referral source, Mick said. "You have to show that you're a problem solver on issues ranging from positioning to access," he said. HME