A whirlwind welcome for new RATC director

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Having served as a physical therapist, lobbyist, advocate, administrator and lawyer, Sharon Hildebrandt has shown she’s not afraid to leave her comfort zone to try something new. Now that intrepid spirit has led her to become the new executive director of AAHomecare’s Re/hab and Assistive Technology Council (RATC).

The Glencoe, Minn., native joins the council at a volatile time — new Medicare codes were due for submission by April 1, state Medicaid budgets are in jeopardy and mandatory certification for rehab suppliers is gaining momentum. So far it has made for a whirlwind welcome.

“There is definitely a broad range of activities going on — but that is what attracted me,” Hildebrandt said. “I saw the ad in Roll Call and thought it would be a good fit. I thought it would be an exciting opportunity for me to work with the membership on legislative, regulatory and education issues.”

Just weeks into her new job, Hildebrandt is already fully immersed in the brass tacks of RATC activities. At the time of her arrival on March 10, the council had three weeks to complete a Medicare code conversion task mandated by HIPAA regulations. There was no time to ease into the job.

Contacted the day before deadline, she said the seven project workgroups had coalesced in a timely fashion and she expressed confidence that all 20 of the new HCPCS would be ready for review on time. After submitting the codes, she was looking forward to meeting with representatives from the DMERCs, SADMERC and CMS to discuss the results.

Meeting with public officials figures to occupy a lot of Hildebrandt’s time in this phase of her RATC tenure. With many states looking at severe budget shortfalls, Medicaid programs cuts are a very real possibility across the country.

“States are definitely under the gun with regard to Medicaid issues,” she said. “We’re trying to be the eyes and ears of our membership and stop any onerous cuts from happening.”

Indeed, Hildebrandt joins RATC and the rehab industry at a challenging time, said AAHomecare President & CEO Tom Connaughton, pointing out the contrast between rehab issues, which are mainly local, and HME issues, which are national in scope. As a national association, AAHomecare needs to marshal all its resources in order to adequately represent each membership bloc, he said.

“(Late former House Speaker) Tip O’Neill was right when he said ‘all politics is local’ – we believe that,” he said. “While competitive bidding is being done on a national scale, the big issue is at the state level for rehab. Clearly this association is a federal advocacy group, but there is more interest in working together with the states.”

Although Connaughton says AAHomecare was “darn lucky” to find Hildebrandt for the RATC post, he dismisses the suggestion that hiring someone with her impressive credentials signals a heightened emphasis on the rehab sector.

“I would respectfully disagree with those who said we weren’t doing enough for rehab members,” he said. “RATC has always had a terrific staff and we have always done our best to meet the needs of our rehab constituency.”

For Hildebrandt, heading up RATC is a way of reconnecting with her rehab roots – something she wanted to do after spending years in other areas of health care and, more recently, in practicing family law. Her rehab experience goes back a couple decades to the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, where she worked as a physical therapist after earning a PT degree from the University of Minnesota. While serving in that position, she bonded with patients and became increasingly appalled at how many didn’t have the proper insurance coverage.

“There were so many gaps in coverage — some would get by with Social Security, but some didn’t have any insurance at all. I had a front row seat for what good services could do for these patients, to help them become more independent. It inspired me to do something about it.”

So Hildebrandt moved to Washington DC to become a patient advocate. While working at a local home health agency, she earned her master’s degree in health administration from George Washington University. She used that experience to gain a lobbying position with the American Hospital Association. Over the years she earned a law degree from Catholic University and spent time representing long-term care suppliers and eventually got into family law. But she ultimately wanted to get back to her first love – rehab, she said.

“There are still a lot of gaps in coverage and visibility of this issue still needs to be raised,” she said. “And rehab providers need strong support. They are an important part of the health care team because they assess the needs and goals of patients, determine their technology needs and match them up with the products out there. They have a longer-term role than other practitioners in their patients’ lives.” HME