Medical suppliers’ ‘no cost to you’ marketing on hot seat in Senate

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Representatives of “durable medical equipment” companies accused of badgering senior citizens into obtaining scooters and other equipment “at little or no cost to you” — with the rest picked up by taxpayers — hid from scrutiny by a Senate oversight committee Wednesday.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers faulted the manufacturers for aggressive marketing, and at one company, 99 percent of the invoices it submitted to Medicare were ineligible, federal investigators found.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, said the nation’s aging population and complex and massive Medicare system have provided a rapidly growing and enormously expensive avenue for companies to take advantage of seniors and taxpayers.

Steve Silverman, chairman of Med-Care Diabetic & Medical Supplies, which received $35 million from Medicare last year, refused to appear voluntarily before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight.

Mrs. McCaskill said her office has been bombarded by seniors who say they feel tricked by aggressive marketers into believing they are corresponding with a government official or their doctor.

“So it’s just a coincidence that your name sounds just like Medicare?” she asked after compelling his appearance by subpoena.

The companies call and offer medical equipment to people, and then obtain a prescription from a doctor on their behalf.

“With a senior population, don’t you think if they need medical equipment it should come from their doctor, not a go-between who is contacting them directly?” Mrs. McCaskill asked.

“Sometimes patients are intimidated by their physicians, they don’t agree with their physicians,” Mr. Silverman, a chiropractor, responded. He said people were contacted only after clicking an online ad and checking a box giving consent for them to be called.

“Are there commissions” for salespeople? the senator asked.

“No, they are salaried employees.”

“I want to be clear, there are no commissions?”

“They have incentives based on how many orders they get,” Mr. Silverman ultimately acknowledged.

“Do you think when my mom wound up with five diabetic testing machines it’s because she needed five or because she kept getting contacted by people saying you can have a new model for no or little cost to you, and read underneath that, paid for by the federal government?” Mrs. McCaskill asked.

She also faulted bureaucrats for a lax review process, saying that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had demanded repayment for 400 of 590 of Med-Care’s claims that it said were improperly paid. Mr. Silverman denied any knowledge of that request.

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