Clinicians, Advocates: CMS Is Undermining Wheelchair Access to Medicare Beneficiaries

Clinicians and advocates representing seniors and people living with disabilities charged the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) with "dismantling" the Medicare benefit for power mobility equipment by dramatically reducing the reimbursements for power wheelchairs.

"The Medicare mobility benefit as we knew it is gone," asserted Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. "CMS has chipped away at the benefit over the last three years, and this latest step ensures that people living with disabilities will get little help from Medicare when they need a power wheelchair to remain independent, and out of institutions."

CMS's latest action lowered the Medicare reimbursements for power wheelchairs and scooters by 21 percent to 41 percent depending on the model of the equipment. Already, many suppliers from around the country say they will stop providing mobility equipment or go out of business because the Medicare reimbursement payments will be too low to cover the cost of acquiring the chair, fitting the patient and servicing the equipment.

"This is an intolerable situation that amounts to dismantling an important Medicare benefit for senior citizens and people living with disabilities," said Imparato. "There will be a loud and powerful outcry. CMS won't be allowed to turn back the clock on providing a critical piece of medical equipment for people who need mobility assistance."

It was particularly troubling to clinicians and consumer groups that CMS' cumulative efforts are undermining access to sophisticated mobility equipment — the power wheelchairs that are used by people with the most severe physical disabilities.

"Because of the recent changes, people with severe disabilities will no longer have access to the wheelchairs they need to address their daily mobility needs," said Barbara Crane, Ph.D., PT, ATP, and co-coordinator of the Clinician Task Force. "Clinically, it is standard professional practice to address all mobility needs for typical daily activities; essentially, these cuts will sentence people to live their lives in institutions or they will be forced to hire caretakers. The costs of caretakers and institutionalization will ultimately far outdistance the price of a wheelchair."

Restrictive changes in the coding and coverage policies, as well as the price reductions, are due to take effect Nov. 15.

"We can not allow CMS to let these vast policy changes stand," said Laura Cohen, Ph.D., PT, ATP, and co-coordinator of the Clinician Task Force. "Clinicians, physicians and advocates for senior citizens and people living with disabilities will be asking Congress to intervene and ensure that the elderly and some of the most vulnerable people in our society can obtain necessary mobility equipment through the Medicare benefit. It is time for CMS to stop trying to save money by taking mobility equipment away from the people who need it most."

Henry Claypool, an advocate from the Independence Care System, said: "Our message to Congress and CMS is that seniors and people living with disabilities should have access to medically appropriate wheelchairs.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of HME Business.

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