Permobil’s Jernigan blends political and advocacy roles

Friday, February 28, 2003

Add Darren Jernigan’s name to the burgeoning roster of government affairs liaisons in the HME industry.

Just don’t consider him to be another face in the crowd.

Though barely in his 30s, the new policy specialist for Lebanon, Tenn.-based Permobil has proven himself to be a quick study and already shows broad context on political issues. Who else but a diehard political junkie would readily quote obscure politicians like early 20th century President William Howard Taft?

In describing his approach to Permobil’s newly created director of government affairs position, he borrowed a phrase from the 27th U.S. President.

“President Taft said ‘What is good for the American farmer is good for America,” Jernigan said. “I have modified it so that ‘What is good for the wheelchair user is good for America.’”

A quadriplegic since breaking his neck in a 1990 car accident, Jernigan has a special empathetic bond with mobility patients. His chair-level view led him to become an activist for the Americans with Disabilities Act and in his new capacity with Permobil, he’s using the first-person perspective to personify critiques of Medicare coverage policies.

“CMS frustrates me by ignoring quality-of-life issues – the elevator seat in particular,” Jernigan said. “I use my elevator seat to get chips off the top shelf at the grocery store, to reach ice from the freezer, for getting into a high bed when I travel and to reach high tables at restaurants. These are experiences CMS officials need to hear about.”

Not only does CMS need to hear about chair-user frustrations, but about the disastrous consequences of getting the wrong equipment, Jernigan said.

“I was put in an inappropriate chair and ended up with a pressure sore, a very expensive surgery and four months on my back to heal,” he said. “Afterwards I was put in a tilt/recline system and since then I’ve had no health problems.”

Incidentally, that chair is made by Jernigan’s employer. Through years of interaction as a customer, Jernigan became a favorite around the office, said Permobil President Larry Jackson.

“He is a very personable guy,” Jackson said. “He has a can-do spirit and refuses to slow down. He is the type of person we make our chairs for.”

Just as other mobility manufacturers have concluded in recent months, Permobil officials felt today’s uncertain regulatory climate compelled them to become more involved in the political process.

“We couldn’t keep our heads in the sand any longer,” Jackson said. “We needed to establish a much bigger presence.”

Jernigan fit the bill perfectly.

“I knew from talking with Darren that he was politically astute,” he said. “He’s the perfect spokesman for our industry. If we can get Darren in front of the right people, everyone will benefit.”

On the job six months, Jernigan has already demonstrated unbridled passion for the issues he considers critical, such as power chair funding and coding, ADA compliance and mandatory rehab provider certification.

“Medicare codes are in desperate need of updating,” said Jernigan, a key member of AAHomecare’s Power Coding Task Force. “Funding drives this industry and consumers are the ones who suffer. They are not getting the chairs they need due to funding and quality-of-life issues.”

ADA has been a pet project for Jernigan since 1995, when he found that the Tennessee State Supreme Court had no accessible entrance.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “I ended up doing my master’s thesis (in Criminal Justice at Middle Tennessee State) on the ADA.”

Rehab certification is another issue that Jernigan is adamant about. Working with the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America and National Registry of Re/hab Technology Suppliers, Jernigan supports a bill in the Tennessee state legislature sponsored by Rep. Mike Turner (D-Nashville).

Turner’s bill – due up for committee review in early March – requires organizations that provide wheeled mobility devices to have a certified employee on staff to conduct consumer evaluations. It also requires certification for physical and occupational therapists who conduct consumer evaluations and in some cases it requires outside therapists to be certified.

Of course, national competitive bidding for Medicare is also on Jernigan’s agenda and he believes the industry has an ally in new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R), a physician and fellow Tennessean.

“I have met with Senator Frist and he has assured me that if and when a competitive bidding proposal comes up, I will be involved with crafting the language.” HME

Races mean $$$, says ex-candidate Jernigan
LEBANON, Tenn. – It takes money to win elective office – even at the state level, Permobil’s new director of government affairs says.

Darren Jernigan should know – he ran for Tennessee state representative in 2000. Despite having insufficient funds, he still finished a respectable third out of five candidates, garnering 22% of the vote.

“Money determines who wins and loses,” he said. “I did manage to raise $20,000 on my own, but overall that wasn’t very much.”

Even though Jernigan didn’t win, Permobil President Larry Jackson said he ran an impressive campaign.

“After we relocated from Boston to Tennessee, the very first piece of mail I got was a flier from Darren’s campaign,” Jackson said. “I saw that as a great sign.”

Running as a Democrat, Jernigan says he knocked on countless doors in his pavement pounding routine and got to connect with many community residents he ordinarily wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet.

“What a country – if you don’t like the current representation, run for office and represent yourself,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” HME