Wheeler Dealer

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

YARMOUTH, Maine - The Wheeler Dealer power wheelchair scam, which came to light in September, continues to haunt and dirty the reputations of legitimate providers.

In mid November, the Associated Press penned and distributed a story highlighting Medicare’s “fastest growing new swindle.” That story ran on the front page of newspapers all over the country. On Nov. 20, NBC Nightly News featured the Wheeler Dealer scam during its “Fleecing of America” segment. Both stories gave short shrift to the work of legitimate providers. Instead, they focused on the sensational antics of crooks who have collected millions of dollars by billing Medicare for unnecessary power wheelchairs.

“When you break it down, we are talking about a small percentage of companies that play these shenanigans,” said Steve Azia, legal counsel for the Powered Mobility Coalition. “Unfortunately, the lowest common denominator sometimes defines you.”

Gary Gilberti, vice chair of AAHomecare’s rehab council, said the industry has a public relations issue, and that CMS officials seem to paint all providers with the same brush. All the news focusing on Wheeler Dealer has “absolutely” tainted his company.

“Some of the new customers and referral sources will say, ‘You are just one of those wheeler dealer guys,’” Gilberti said. “I go through a quick introduction of who we are and they go, ‘Oh, you are different.’”

Increasing standards within the industry should help elevate it’s standing, but some people will always see HME providers as “used car salesmen,” said Fran Burke, owner of Burke Medical in Chicopee, Mass.

“I’m not ashamed of what we do,” he said. “I’m not ashamed to see them doing the clean up - I’m 100% behind it. The only problem is, we don’t want to find out that we can’t get our claims through the system because people have done so much cheating.”

Increasing industry standards is key to boosting its reputation, said Azia.

“It’s important that those entities not serious about being in this business don’t have a free ride to make a lot of money,” he said.

When it comes to bad publicity, one strategy is to use it to your advantage, said Diane Loewen, vice president of Mitchell Home Medical in Ypsilanti, Mich.

“I take it and go to the referral sources and say, ‘This is why you need to refer to Mitchell Home Medical because we won’t put you at risk,’” she said. “We aren’t giving out POVs like rental cars.”