Supplier standards

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

WASHINGTON - The National Supplier Clearinghouse, which began a strict - some say unfair - enforcement of the 21 supplier standards in November, shows no signs of easing up any time soon.

In January, for example, the NSC revoked Medirental Corp’s supplier number for reasons “I don’t understand,” said Director Rafael Rivera in an e-mail to HME News last month. Medirental is located in Puerto Rico.

Karen Gaskell, owner of Barnell Medical in Thompson, Conn., had her supplier number revoked in December by the NSC because her hours of operation were not posted.

“The NSC has basically taken away my livelihood for a small infraction that could have and should have been easily fixed,” Gaskell said. “In the real world, this doesn’t happen.”

The clearinghouse stepped up its inspections after getting burned last September in Houston, where the Wheeler Dealer power wheelchair scandal took place. Crooks in that scam, which defrauded Medicare of millions of dollars, had no problem securing provider numbers.

Now, providers who deviate even slightly from the 21 Supplier Standards are getting their supplier numbers revoked.

The inspections don’t bother industry watchers and providers. What irks them is the NSC’s unresponsiveness to providers who attempt to rectify their shortcomings within the allowed 15 days.

In many cases, providers received letters notifying them of their noncompliance a day or two before the deadline and sometimes after the deadline, said healthcare Jeff Baird and other industry watchers.

“It’s unfair,” he said.

The NSC referred questions regarding its enforcement actions to CMS. In an interview with HME News last month, CMS CFO Tim Hill said: “If you are talking to suppliers who believe the NSC is not meeting the published criteria and standards for timeliness and the ability to come into compliance, you should send them on to me.”

If the NSC revokes a supplier number, the provider can appeal, but the appeals process takes three to four months and can dry up a company’s cash flow, said Everett Wilson, a healthcare attorney at Wilson, Suarez, Lopez & Gennette in Coral Gables, Fla.

“This upsets me to no end,” said attorney Elizabeth Hogue. “If there are so many unsavory providers in the HME industry, who let them in? Who let the dogs out? The NSC did. And now they are coming down with all the guns loaded and getting rid of some providers who I’m sure are legitimate.”