'The Wheelchair Guy'

Friday, August 31, 2007

WASHINGTON - Pete Lancaster's used to wrangling with payers: Medicare, Medicaid, even the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Health Net Federal Services, the insurance benefit for war veterans, takes the cake. Still, Lancaster spends four days a week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, helping to fit and repair wheelchairs for disabled veterans.
"My office manager yells at me all the time, because we're having so many problems getting paid," said Lancaster, who owns Patients 1st Medical Equipment Co. in Landover, Md. "But, first of all, I love what I do, and second, it's not the soldiers' fault. They shouldn't have to worry about getting what they need."
Lancaster stared working with Walter Reed almost three years ago. At the time, he had a contract with the VA for service and repair work, and Walter Reed called him in to work with a triple amputee who needed a custom wheelchair.
The doctors and therapists were so impressed with Lancaster that they asked him to "commit" to the medical center 100%. Though he wasn't looking forward to working with Health Net, he agreed. (Lancaster and two other employees focus on Walter Reed, while the remaining handful of employees focus on other payers.)
"I have a 19-year-old and 17-year-old son," Lancaster said. "These are young guys in rough shape. It's no fun being a single amputee with sores on your stump and not being able to walk. I wouldn't say what I do is magic, but I'm very passionate about it."
Lancaster recently received a service coin from a colonel in the U.S. Army for his "courage, spirit, compassion and service" to the veterans.
On any given day, Lancaster works with 10 to 20 different disabled veterans. He does more than fit and repair their wheelchairs, though.
"A couple of the guys who are musicians, their hands aren't moving like they used to, so I've been teaching them how to play the slide guitar," said Lancaster. "They're 22 years old, and I'm teaching them blues music by Elmer James."
Walter Reed considers Lancaster part of the medical team, right alongside doctors and therapists, he said. Lancaster, who's known at Walter Reed as "The Wheelchair Guy," is often involved in the care of veterans from their admittance to their discharge.
"I get close to their family members," he said. "I see them when they're torn up, then when they're walking with a smile, then when they're mentoring the other soldiers. You hear them say, 'You're a double amputee with your eye blown out; me, too. This is how it happened to me.'"
At the end of the day, doing business with Walter Reed may mean payment problems and doing things he wouldn't normally do, but it's worth it, Lancaster said.
"I don't rent power wheelchairs, but I'll rent them to these guys," he said. "It's something special. All this bad stuff you hear about Walter Reed--it's the most efficient operation I've ever seen. The care they get is second to none. I like being part of that."