Wheeler Dealers

Feds allege scam artists bilked Medicare for millions

Manufacturers and suppliers of wheelchairs are experiencing cash flow problems as a result of the investigations, Sokol says. Approvals of power wheelchairs in Dallas have been all but shut down by Medicare since news of the scandal first broke in the Houston Chronicle last August.

The stringent new rules outlined by Operation Wheeler Dealer are ruining business for legitimate providers, Sokol says. And the new rules were put into place without any input from the affected consumers. "We are being punished," he says, "for something we notified CMS about."

In recent months, The Scooter Store has been forced to lay off 200 of its 1,500 employees, says Margaret McGuckin, executive vice president for marketing. The largest provider of power wheelchairs in the country, The Scooter Store is based in New Braunfels and has 60 locations around the country; there are three outlets and a distribution system in the Dallas area.

Mark Andresen

"The layoffs are directly related to Medicare's current interpretation of medical necessity guidelines," McGuckin says. "Anybody who can take more than one step will be denied a wheelchair under these new rules. The real tragedy is that people with real medical necessity are going to be denied the ability to live with dignity in their homes. They will be forced into nursing homes or assisted living centers. As taxpayers, that costs us much more than a wheelchair."

McGuckin blames the fraud on CMS and its lack of internal controls. The Scooter Store works with more than 100,000 physicians across the country. Each doctor on average prescribes fewer than 10 power wheelchairs a year, she says.

"In Houston and Dallas, several doctors were prescribing hundreds of wheelchairs per year," McGuckin says, "and CMS did nothing for months. This could have been avoided if CMS had good internal controls."

Menke warns consumers to be wary about giving out their Medicare or Medicaid information, which could be used for other forms of fraud, such as identity theft. "If someone is being promised a free TV or other enticements to fork over their Medicare card," Menke says, "it should raise some red flags."

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