Medicare Tries to Put Brakes on Power Wheelchair Sales

The government is going after power wheelchair vendors who bill Medicare for equipment never delivered or who offer products to Medicare beneficiaries who don''t need them, according to an article in New York Newsday.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid recently noticed that spending on power wheelchairs had increased nearly 450 percent in the last four years. Total Medicare payments for motorized wheelchairs swelled from $289 million in 1999 to $845 million in 2002, and a projected $1.2 billion for 2003. By contrast, overall Medicare benefit payments rose only 11 percent during that same period.

"While many of these wheelchairs are provided by ethical suppliers and go to beneficiaries in need," said CMS Administrator Tom Scully, "we know that a great number of unscrupulous suppliers are promising free wheelchairs to beneficiaries who don''t need them. We are taking immediate action to stop these scams."

In an effort dubbed "Operation Wheeler Dealer," CMS is taking a number of steps to close loopholes in a Medicare policy that officials said allowed for easy cheating. Scully said Medicare policy had made it easy to obtain a Medicare provider number, which could enable someone to send in fake bills and get payment for medical equipment never delivered. The individual or company would then close its post office box and vanish before being caught.

CMS will immediately begin aggressively scrutinizing all new applications for provider numbers and will not issue any new ones until early 2004.

The American Association for Homecare, whose members include wheelchair providers, suppliers and manufacturers, urged the administration to act cautiously in implementing its program so as not to penalize legitimate providers.

Association President Kay Cox attributed the recent growth in wheelchair use to consumer awareness, lifestyle changes and technology improvements.

The government claims that this fraud is particularly acute in Harris County, Texas. There, Medicare paid for more than 31,000 power wheelchairs in 2002, compared to just over 3,000 power wheelchairs in 2001.

For the full New York Newsday article, click here.

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