Medicare: Who needs the headache?

Saturday, August 31, 2002

(Editor's note: As the industry battles to beat back competitive bidding, HME News will profile from time to time providers who, for whatever reason, don't fear the reimbursement cut.)

TUCSON, Ariz. - Gerald Long suspects he could triple or even quadruple his income if he accepted Medicare assignment or did business with other insurers. But, he said, who needs the headache?

"Everyone I've known over the last 18 years who is small and has gotten into Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance are out of business," said the owner of Tucson Safety & Medical. "Or they're not happy. They've aged. The expense involved in handling the paperwork and keeping up with it killed or is killing them."

Long launched Tucson Safety & Medical in 1984, after a long career as a paramedic and hospital employee. He started out as a first-aid supply company, providing products to construction sites, factories, hotels and restaurants. He soon began getting personal requests from his customers for "a wheelchair here, a walker there."

Twenty-five percent of his million dollar business now comes from DME. The company sells everything from hard hats to wheelchairs, and the union of safety equipment and HME has been a good fit.

"A lot of senior citizens are home hobbyists - wood workers or carvers - and they need eye and ear protection," Long said. "Sometimes a guy comes in because he needs a respirator because he's got a wood shop in the garage and will walk out with a transport chair for his wife."

Long regularly refers potential customers, some times as many as 10 a day, to other HMEs who accept Medicare assignment and other insurances.

Competitive bidding? He doesn't give much thought to it. His biggest challenges are finding quality help, and helping customers repair or replace "cheap catalog items." He's begun branching into ADLs and "buggy whips," six-foot poles with an orange flag on top that attach to scooters and power wheelchairs.

"There's no place in town that people can get that," he said. "We have them in a display and people will drive by on their scooter and honk their horn. We'll go out and fit it on for them, put on a couple of reflective stickers. Some will even buy an orange or lime safety vest to increase their visibility."

At the end of the day, he said, "I'll leave the competitive bidding to the big guys. We have enough fun with OSHA regulations, general first aid and the walk-in (DME) with their needs and concerns." HME