July 17, 2008

Medicare Recipients Get 18-Month Breather

By Kim Leonard, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 17--Eileen Haas can continue to order breathing and feeding supplies for her daughter from UPMC Home Medical Equipment, as she has for 15 years, because of Medicare changes that won approval this week.

The House and Senate late Tuesday overrode President Bush's veto of a bill impacting doctors' pay and other aspects of Medicare. One key result for the Pittsburgh region is that Medicare recipients won't have to buy medical equipment from companies chosen through a controversial competitive bidding program for at least 18 months.

Haas of West Deer had worried about picking a new supplier from a federally provided list. Her daughter Melissa, 25, uses a custom-made tracheal tube and other equipment that her mother orders through UPMC.

The bidding program took effect July 1 in Pittsburgh and nine other cities. If it hadn't been delayed, "I would have to go with another provider that won the contract, and that company could be as far away as California," Haas said.

A malfunctioning device or an unexpected shortage of supplies could present a problem with a supplier hundreds of miles away, she said, adding Melissa's doctors are with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Haas said one of Melissa's lungs was surgically removed when she was an infant, and she has a medical condition that can cause her esophagus and remaining lung to collapse.

In all, the bidding program's delay affects about 300,000 traditional Medicare recipients in the region.

"They can stay with the providers they always had," Cindy Wilson, general manager of UPMC Home Medical Equipment, said Wednesday. UPMC lost out in the bidding process to lower-cost providers.

All House and Senate members from Pennsylvania supported the delay. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, pushed for it and said the additional 18 months provides a chance, under a new president, to reassess cost-cutting moves in the Medicare system. The bidding procedure "is not the right way to go," he said.

Medicare spent $8.6 billion last year on durable medical equipment, and program officials had projected an eventual $1 billion a year savings through the bidding program.

Tammy Zelenko, CEO of AdvaCare Home Services Inc., with three offices in the region, won a contract to provide oxygen but said the bidding program "was flawed from the start."

What's unfortunate, she said, is that the program took effect for two weeks, causing confusion among Medicare recipients. "What did it cost the government to do this?" she asked.

The final legislation forestalled a 10.6 percent pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients.


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