Problem Solvers

Sustained Support Surface Success

Support surface providers without Medicare contracts can build a sustainable business by developing strong relationships with vendors and customers.

The extension of Medicare’s competitive bidding program to group 2 support surfaces has created market challenges for HME providers, particularly those without bidding contracts. However, long term success in the support surface business is possible when providers commit to purchasing quality products, educating themselves and their staff, and developing strong relationships with customers.

A good starting point is to partner with a high quality manufacturer or vendor rather than simply picking the one with the cheapest products, according to Heather Trumm, director of Wound Care and Bariatrics for The VGM Group, a member service organization.

In today’s challenging market, some providers are tempted to turn to the low-cost manufacturers and distributors available online. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where that old maxim “you get what you pay for” rings true, and most of the Internet resellers “don’t really sell a product that meets the needs of the [patient],” warns Ron Resnick, president and owner of Blue Chip Medical Products, a manufacturer of therapeutic mattresses and wheelchair cushions.

If the support surface doesn’t meet the patient’s needs, either because it’s the wrong mattress for their condition or because it’s poor quality and breaks, the patient’s condition may worsen, and poor patient outcomes are bad for business. “A hospital’s not going to buy that inexpensive product,” Resnick adds. “They need to get a [good] clinical outcome.”

When selecting a manufacturer or vendor, Trumm recommends looking for a company that oversees the manufacturing process themselves and backs up its providers with warranties and replacements. Resnick says good manufacturers also offer training for providers.

Expanding Expertise

Once an HME provider has committed to selling good quality products, they need to educate themselves and their staff members about wound care and the support surfaces required to treat and prevent them. High quality manufacturers and vendors will offer that training because it’s good for business. “Before a wound care person is going to do anything, the referrer is going to want to know that they’re entrusting a provider that has the expertise, the knowledge, and the ability to service that patient,” Resnick advises.

In addition to educating themselves, it’s a good idea for providers to have somebody on staff who can help educate customers, too. “There’s a lot of turnover in some of these hospitals, nursing homes and long term care facilities,” Trumm says. “You need somebody who can go in there every two weeks to make sure everything’s okay and do some education on the products. Keep in front of your customers that way.”

It’s even better if that person has clinical expertise, according to Trumm. “People don’t want to put the money up front to have a professional in wound care that knows what they’re doing, but in my opinion, you need to if you want to be successful,” she says.

The third ingredient in a sustainable support surfaces business is diversification of referral sources and other customers. Even without a Medicare contract, there are plenty of other sources of revenue, but the provider needs to be willing to get out there, start talking to people and establish relationships with potential customers. “There are a lot of ways to market yourself,” Resnick notes. “But if you don’t go out there and tell the story, it will never happen.”

With the aging demographics, long term care facilities are a growing market for selling or renting support surfaces. According to Resnick, a lot of HME providers are hesitant to sell to long term care homes “because they don’t pay their bills.” While that might have been the case 15 to 20 years ago, he says there are a lot of big, corporate long term care chains, hospitals and group purchasing organizations where providers can promote their products and services. “It could be a single location deal or a multi-location deal,” he adds.

Local HME providers can offer another advantage to hospitals, including veteran’s hospitals and individual departments within hospitals. If there’s a problem with a support surface, the local provider can offer faster service, and Trumm thinks that’s a huge selling point. “With these national companies,...if they have a problem with their support surface, they have to wait for a week before they can get somebody in,” she says.

The local sales and service angle also appeals to private payers and private insurance carriers, according to Resnick. They don’t want to buy on the Internet and deal with the hassle where they don’t have a service provider in their area.

Retail is another big source of potential revenue. “You would be so surprised at how many people will actually pay cash to have a support surface in their home,” Trumm notes. “It’s the baby boomers, and they want to be comfortable in their home, lying on a comfortable support surface so they get a good night’s rest and help with other things, that’s huge.”

Other potential sources of business referrals are hospices, rehabilitation facilities, and even plastic surgeons. “Plastic surgeons are a really good source of business because they are the ones who write scripts for patients who need flap surgery, patients who are burned, patients who have pressure sores,” Resnick says.

As with so many other businesses, networking with people in the industry is critical. The Wound, Ostomy and Continence Nurses (WOCN) Society is a professional organization for wound care specialists. They’re the people who the doctors call and ask for advice on wound care and can generate referrals for providers.

Finally, HME providers need to carry some basic parts for customer service calls. “As with any mechanical device, things can eventually break, so we have a small listing of parts that we recommend the dealer keep on hand case they have to make minor repairs,” Resnick advises. That list includes things like an extra mattress or two, a couple of extra covers and bladders, and in some cases an extra compressor or pump.

Ultimately, succeeding in the group 2 support surface market without a Medicare contract requires a commitment on the part of the HME provider. But those who are willing to put the effort into building relationships with suppliers and customers, and into educating themselves and their staff, can operate successful and sustainable businesses for the long haul.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a freelance writer covering a variety of industries. She can be reached via email at leilameyer@gmail.com or on the web at leilameyer.com.

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