"We have to keep the pressure on. We need to keep pushing really hard." -- Asela Cuervo

Saturday, August 31, 2002

WASHINGTON — HME leaders aren't taking anything for granted in the industry's fight to derail national competitive bidding. If anything, the battle has intensified, with providers across the country being encouraged to do their part in educating lawmakers as to how competitive bidding could impact the industry and beneficiaries.

"We have to keep the pressure on," said Asela Cuervo, AAHomecare's senior v.p. of government relations. "We need to keep pushing really hard."

During Congress's August recess, providers were encouraged to take part in town meetings with lawmakers. The goal: Introduce pols to beneficiaries, providers and manufacturers of home medical equipment. Such face-to-face meetings are key because even though the House of Representatives passed a prescription drug bill, many reps didn't understand the bill's competitive bidding component. For that reason, it's critical that providers educate even those reps who voted for the prescription drug bill, pointing out how competitive bidding could, among other things, decrease beneficiary access and drive some smaller providers out of business, said Cuervo and others.

As part of the education and lobbying effort, AAHomecare is heading up a Washington fly-in Sept. 18 for members and non-members to blitz their lawmakers with the industry's message.

"For DME, they are just now getting on the radar screen," said Jacqueline Negri, executive director of the New York Medical Equipment Providers (NYMEP) association. "They are at the point now where they are mobilizing a true education and advocacy program."

The problem, say some, is that too few providers are participating in the industry's grassroots lobbying effort.

"It's the same 70 to 100 people who are doing it," said Nancy Lancing, director of marketing for the Assistive Technology Group. "I see most people sitting back and wanting to let the other guy do it."

VGM's president Ron Bendell said he's "a little concerned that there is a feeling on the dealers' part that 'It can't happen to me.'"

VGM sponsored a meeting and fundraiser last month with Congressman Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), who is running against Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a strong supporter of competitive bidding.

"The concern is that we need to rally as much support as we can because in an election year if (lawmakers) believe they can pass a bill that involves prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries, unless we can get a lot of voices talking against it, I think we would still lose," Bendell said.

If the Senate doesn't pass a prescription drug bill this month, and most industry watchers believe it won't, competitive bidding could still be part of a Senate Medicare giveback bill. In the end, senators, representatives and members of the Bush Administration will try to hammer out a compromise final budget before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. It's best if the industry can convince lawmakers to scuttle competitive bidding before that Conference Committee convenes. That's because at the 11th hour anything can happen, say industry watchers.

"The situation looks hopeful at the moment," said David Miller, CEO of The MED Group, which like Invacare and VGM has helped organize letter-writing campaigns. "But the situation can change from day to day so we must continue working as an industry to inform and educate those making decisions regarding competitive bidding." HME