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Seniors 'brainwashed' by scooter ads

Posted by on Mar. 28, 2013 at 9:21 PM
  • 13 Replies

Seniors 'brainwashed' by controversial scooter ads, doctor says


A scene from a Hoveround commercial. Ads for motorized scooters are coming under increased scrutiny for creating the false impression that they're a convenient way to get around, not a medical necessity.

TV ads show smiling seniors enjoying an "active" lifestyle on a motorized scooter, taking in the sights at the Grand Canyon, fishing on a pier and high-fiving their grandchildren at a baseball game.

The commercials, which promise freedom and independence to people with limited mobility, have driven the nearly $1 billion U.S. market for power wheelchairs and scooters. But the spots by the industry's two leading companies, The Scooter Store and Hoveround, also have drawn scrutiny from doctors and lawmakers, who say they create the false impression that scooters are a convenient means of transportation rather than a medical necessity.

Members of Congress say the ads lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending by Medicare, which is only supposed to pay for scooters when seniors are unable to use a cane, walker or regular wheelchair. Government inspectors say up to 80 percent of the scooters and power wheelchairs Medicare buys go to people who don't meet the requirements. And doctors say more than money is at stake: Seniors who use scooters unnecessarily can become sedentary, which can exacerbate obesity and other disorders.

"Patients have been brainwashed by The Scooter Store," says Dr. Barbara Messinger-Rapport, director of geriatric medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. "What they're implying is that you can use these scooters to leave the house, to socialize, to get to bingo."

The scooter controversy, which has escalated with a government raid on The Scooter's Store's New Braunfels, Texas, headquarters last month, underscores the influence TV ads can have on medical decisions. Like their peers in the drug industry, scooter companies say direct-to-consumer advertising educates patients about their medical options. But critics argue that the scooter spots are little more than sales pitches that cause patients to pressure doctors to prescribe unnecessary equipment.

The Scooter Store and Hoveround, both privately held companies that together make up about 70 percent of the U.S. market for scooters, spent more than $180 million on TV, radio and print advertising in 2011, up 20 percent since 2008, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media. Their ads often include language that the scooters can be paid for by Medicare or other insurance: "Nine out of ten people got them for little or no cost," states one Hoveround ad.

Hoveround did not respond to a half-dozen requests for comment. The Scooter Store, the nation's biggest seller of scooters, said that most people who contact the company after seeing the ads do not ultimately receive a scooter.

"The fact that 87 percent of the persons who seek power mobility products from The Scooter Store under their Medicare benefits are disqualified by the company's screening process is powerful evidence of the company's commitment to ensuring that only legitimate claims are submitted to Medicare," the company said in a statement. The Scooter Store has been operating with a streamlined staff in recent days, following massive layoffs in the wake of the raid by federal agents.

Insurance executives say doctors who don't understand when Medicare is supposed to pay for scooters are partly to blame for unnecessary purchases.

Scooters — which are larger than power wheelchairs and often include a handlebar for steering — are covered by Medicare if they are prescribed by a doctor who has completed an evaluation showing that their patient is unable to function at home without a device.

The doctor fills out a lengthy prescription form and sends it to a scooter supplier that delivers the device to the patient and then submits the paperwork to Medicare for payment. Medicare pays about 80 percent of that cost, which can range from $1,500 to $3,500. The remainder is often picked up by supplemental insurance or the government-funded Medicaid program for low-income and disabled Americans.

The process can help immobile seniors get equipment that improves their lives. Ernest Tornabell of Boynton Beach, Fla., received a scooter from Pride, a smaller manufacturer, through Medicare about six years ago. The 73-year-old suffers from obesity, diabetes and lung disease and says he used to never leave his house. Now, using the scooter he can walk his dog, go to the grocery store and run other errands.

"I couldn't really get out and do anything before. Now I have a lot more mobility," said Tornabell, whose doctor recommended that he get the device.

But Dr. Stephen Peake, medical director for the insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield in Tennessee, says doctors can often be as uninformed about the appropriate role of scooters as patients.

"I talk to a lot of physicians about this subject ... and after our discussions, they don't understand that you can't get a power mobility device so mom can go to the park with the family," Peake said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Aging last year.

One reason for the confusion? Doctors say scooter companies are just as aggressive with health professionals as they are in marketing to their patients.

Dr. Jerome Epplin of Litchfield, Ill., who also testified before the Senate, estimates that only about one out of every 10 patients who ask him for a scooter actually needs one. But he said that sales representatives from some scooter companies put pressure on him by accompanying patients to his office. The effect is coercive, he says.

"It can be intimidating," Epplin says. "I see it as an inappropriate attempt to influence my clinical judgment when I'm evaluating a patient."

Allegations of Medicare fraud within the industry go back nearly a decade.

In 2005 the U.S. Justice Department sued The Scooter Store, alleging that its advertising enticed seniors to obtain power scooters paid for by Medicare, and then sold patients more expensive scooters that they did not want or need. The Scooter Store settled that case in 2007 for $4 million.

As part of the settlement, The Scooter Store was operating under an agreement that made the company subject to periodic government reviews between 2007 and last year. In 2011, the latest review available, government auditors estimated that The Scooter Store received between $47 million and $88 million in improper payments for scooters.

The Scooter Store took no action to repay the money until February 2012, when the Health and Human Services' inspector general threatened to bar the company from doing business with Medicare, which accounts for about 75 percent of its income, according to its congressional testimony.

The company said the government's estimate was flawed and that it was willing to repay $19.5 million in overpayments. The company has paid about $5.7 million, with the rest scheduled for repayment over a 5-year period to be completed in 2017.

Medicare said in a January letter that it accepted the fee based on The Scooter Store's own assessment of what it owed, but that the agreement "does not absolve The Scooter Store from any further liability."

In recent months Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and other members of the Senate Aging Committee have pushed Medicare to recover the millions of dollars spent on unnecessary scooters each year. Those purchases totaled about $500 million in 2011, the latest year available, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general.

Medicare, which says that it does not have control over how companies market chairs, launched a pilot program designed to reduce wasteful spending on scooters.

Under the program, government contractors in seven states review patients' medical documentation to make sure they need a wheelchair or scooter before approving payments for a device. The program is being tested in a small number of states — including Florida, California and New York — because the government must pay contractors extra to review additional paperwork.

The program has been criticized by The Scooter Store's executives, who say that contractors are too strict in their reviews, rejecting payments for power chairs that are genuinely needed.

The reduced payments are taking a toll on the company, which was founded in 1991. The Scooter Store has spent nearly $1 million lobbying Congress over the last two years, almost exclusively focused on the Medicare review program. And the company laid off about 370 employees in the past year, blaming the reduced payments it's been getting from Medicare.

Then, last week, The Scooter Store notified most of its remaining 1,800 employees that their jobs were being eliminated. The company said in a statement to the Associated Press that it is operating with a workforce of 300 employees — down from the 2,500 workforce it had at its peak — while trying to restructure its operations.

The mass layoffs followed a raid in February by about 150 agents from the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Texas attorney general's Medicaid fraud unit at the company's headquarters.

Federal authorities have declined to speak about the raid, but scooter industry critics in Congress praised the action.

"This raid is a welcome step toward cracking down on waste and fraud in Medicare," said Blumenthal, the Connecticut senator. "I have urged action to stop abusive overpayments for such devices — costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and preying on seniors with deceptive sales pitches."

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by on Mar. 28, 2013 at 9:21 PM
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Replies (1-10):
by guerrilla girl on Mar. 28, 2013 at 9:22 PM
2 moms liked this

My FIL's sister fell for this...and almost became immobile until my MIL chewed her out and told her to get off her fat a$$ and walk. Now she walks everywhere.

by on Mar. 28, 2013 at 9:37 PM
Seriously, I hope I never need something like that. How depressing to give up and advertise that you're helplessly dependent. I'm planning on walking until the day I die. This scooter r thing is a ripoff.
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by on Mar. 28, 2013 at 10:02 PM
2 moms liked this

I laughed. I know it's serious and fraud shouldn't be a laughing matter but the fact that the FBI and other gov't officials 'raided' the scooter store HQ totally cracks me up!

by guerrilla girl on Mar. 28, 2013 at 10:28 PM
2 moms liked this

That part was pretty funny

Quoting Veni.Vidi.Vici.:

I laughed. I know it's serious and fraud shouldn't be a laughing matter but the fact that the FBI and other gov't officials 'raided' the scooter store HQ totally cracks me up!

Neon Washable Paint

by guerrilla girl on Mar. 29, 2013 at 1:14 PM
1 mom liked this

I know they would be good for some, but it seems to me that they actually discourage using what mobility folks actually have. They seem to cause more harm than help.

Quoting lga1965:

Seriously, I hope I never need something like that. How depressing to give up and advertise that you're helplessly dependent. I'm planning on walking until the day I die. This scooter r thing is a ripoff.

Neon Washable Paint

by Bronze Member on Mar. 30, 2013 at 1:41 AM

Not surprising.  It took me over 3 years to get my latest wheelchair (and yes, I do need one), whereas previous wheelchairs took 6 months or less.  I'm sure similar issues contributed to the wait.  Wheelchairs are not necessarily as heavily marketed as these scooters, but the type I have was in very high demand because it had very new technology.  It's basically a manual-hybrid chair, able to assist the user with difficult inclines.  They no longer make them, though, because they crap out really quickly and are expensive to fix.

by René on Mar. 30, 2013 at 1:55 AM

I will stick with my 2 wheel scooter, it allows me to actually be active as I usually use my "good" leg to walk it along.  It allows me to open doors for myself, to fit easily through crowds and I love it.  I had a hoverround style wheel chair and I went to the zoo in it a few times.  I hated it!  It put me too loww to have a good line of sight, people do not let you pass in crowd, you cannot open a door from it.  I hope I can keep my 2 wheels for a long long time.

Here is one like mine except mine is black with pretty purple flames lol

My only complaint is battery life.  I am thinking about modifying it to take a larcher battery lol.  It  has given me so much freedom!  I can play on the playground with the kids even without having to be on my leg:)

by on Mar. 30, 2013 at 2:12 AM
That's really sad. But fucked up the company is trying to blame congress and such for their downfall. They engaged in predatory fraudulent and outright pushy tactics and it caught up with them. Get over it.
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by Gold Member on Mar. 30, 2013 at 2:31 AM

 Random aside...every time I see that commercial, I wonder what year it was made...

by Ruby Member on Mar. 30, 2013 at 2:52 AM

I don't believe that any medical device or drug should ever be advertised to the general public.  I believe that it is completely and 100% unethical.

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