This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
Medicare fraud is a multibillion-dollar problem in this country, but one form it takes is particularly despicable because it preys on one of the greatest fears of the elderly: loss of independence.
Those who are finding it harder to get out and about are all too vulnerable to hucksters promising the latest in electric wheelchair convenience – power chairs with jaunty names like Rascal and Jazzy.
The ubiquitous, cheery commercials on cable stations promise that those power chairs are the ticket to greater mobility and freedom (cue the music and the happy group of riders trekking around town and through the woods). Plus they’re free!
Yes, Medicare probably will foot the entire bill, the ads promise. And the seller will even fill out the forms for you.
Of course it will. Because it’s been getting reimbursed for much more than the actual cost – up to $4,000 for a chair that normally sells for about $1,000. But in many cases the senior citizen doesn’t really qualify for a Medicare-reimbursed chair. They’re only supposed to be paid for if the person is unable to get around with a cane, walker or regular wheelchair.
Often the chair arrives and turns out not to be what the senior really needs. It might be too big to navigate in the house, for instance. But once Medicare pays for one chair, it won’t pay for another.
Government action in recent years – including a 2007 judgment against one power chair company selling in Washington state, Electric Mobility Corp. – is helping reduce the overpayment problem. But many seniors continue to report high-pressure sales tactics; they end up agreeing to order a power chair because it seems like the only way to get the salesperson to leave them alone.
In other cases, consumers report that salespeople lie about Medicare reimbursement; they only find out that payment has been declined after the chair has been shipped. The may be falsely told that the chair will work with an existing car lift, or that a new car lift comes with the chair. Components often break and need expensive repairs.
Consumers should be aware of the problems associated with the power-chair industry. If they truly are candidates for such a device, they should work with their own doctor to obtain Medicare reimbursement – and read the fine print. Regulators need to keep a vigilant eye on this and other schemes targeting vulnerable seniors.