Ten years ago, Keli Babcock faced a crisis. A medical condition was affecting her legs and her lungs, requiring that she use a ventilator. She couldn't walk or even maneuver a manual wheelchair. Mobility had become a difficult challenge.
But Keli wasn't about to give in; she aspired to accomplish much in life. The Medicare program provided the teenager with a power wheelchair, one that is powered by batteries and includes equipment that allows a ventilator to ride along with her.
Keli is supported by her loving family, but with the power wheelchair she was able to care for herself and not be dependent on others. She can get to the bathroom, prepare meals and perform other daily necessities of life in her home.
What transpired exemplifies the impact that a power wheelchair can have on someone with limited mobility: Medicare helped vastly improve Keli's quality of life. With the mobility issues mitigated, Keli went on to achieve many of her goals, as well as give back to her community. Keli finished high school, and then earned a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Weber State University.
"I wouldn't have been able to accomplish much without the power wheelchair," Keli says. "It has made a tremendous difference in my life. I can move around my home, I work, and I've been able to travel. None of those things would have happened if it weren't for the power wheelchair that Medicare provided."
Keli, now 27, works at the Tri-County Independent Living Center in Ogden, where she helps patients with mobility limitations overcome their challenges. "I tell people my story, and what I have had to overcome, and hope it will inspire them," says Keli, who a year ago was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Utah for 2010. Her winning platform was: "You are unique. Live it. Love it. Rock it!"
And Keli reiterates the importance of her power wheelchair: "My wheelchair has meant everything to me. It means so much when people are able to gain more freedom and independence from mobility assistance."
Around the country, there are thousands of power wheelchair users who are just as thankful to Medicare for providing the mobility assistance they depend on. But in Washington, it certainly seems that the Medicare mobility benefit is undervalued. Far too often, when Congress or the Administration searches for budget cuts, the Medicare mobility benefit is the target. It's unfair that some of the most vulnerable Americans senior citizens and people living with disabilities, bear more than their share of sacrifices.
Due to a series of pricing, policy and regulatory changes, there is widespread concern about whether power wheelchairs will continue to be available for Medicare patients after their doctors prescribe mobility assistance. There also could be lengthy delays before wheelchairs are delivered.
These circumstances will result from decisions to eliminate a Medicare patient's right to have a new power wheelchair purchased for them in the first month that they receive it and a badly flawed procurement "bidding" program that will reduce the number of providers in specific locations rather than create competition. Many home medical equipment providers and consumer advocates have asked Congress to take steps to ensure that these policy changes won't restrict Medicare patients' access to power wheelchairs.
If prescriptions for power wheelchairs can't be filled in a timely fashion, it's clear that many Medicare beneficiaries, people like Keli Babcock, as well as senior citizens and patients with medical conditions that severely limit their mobility, will suffer in the future. Thousands of Americans depend on their Medicare power wheelchairs. Power wheelchairs can prevent Medicare beneficiaries from suffering injuries from falls, delay placements in expensive nursing homes and allow patients to age gracefully in their homes.
Richard Gaskin, of Montclair, N.J., suffered injuries 23 years ago that limited his mobility. Until a few years ago, Richard was able to maneuver a manual wheelchair. But eventually, he no longer had the strength to do it and constantly needed help from family and friends.
Today, he is grateful that in 2008 Medicare provided him with a power wheelchair that has changed his life.
"I couldn't get around in a manual wheelchair anymore," Richard says. "I was stuck in one place, and it was so difficult to get around. I needed someone to push me all the time. Now I have more independence. The power wheelchair does so much for me. I can get around on my own."
Jason Turner, of Las Vegas, also depends on his power wheelchair. Jason says his power wheelchair has made a dramatic difference in his life. Jason, who has multiple sclerosis, received a power wheelchair though Medicare 12 years ago. "It is like getting my legs back," Jason says, adding that it is so much easier to perform simple tasks at home such as helping his young daughters with their home work. "I have the freedom and independence to go wherever I need to go."
Just as importantly, Jason is relieved not to be a burden on his family and friends because, with his power wheelchair, he can do things for himself.
Tyler Wilson, president of the American Association for Home-care (AAHomecare), says Washington policymakers should hear the stories of people like Keli, Richard and Jason.
"Far too often, policies and regulations are concocted in Washington by people who don't fully understand the impact that their actions will have in places like Ogden, Montclair and Las Vegas," Wilson says. "The Medicare mobility benefit has successfully allowed many people to overcome physical challenges that limit their mobility. It has kept Medicare beneficiaries out of hospital emergency rooms by reducing their falls and helps increase their mobility in their homes and their communities."
Policymakers, says Wilson, should recognize the value of mobility assistance to those who need it.
"We need policies and regulations that help people increase their mobility," Wilson says, "not measures that restrict access. That's going in the wrong direction."
Mobility Matters is published periodically by the American Association for Home-care (AAHomecare) to inform Congress, the administration, policymakers, consumer organizations and the media about Medicare's power mobility benefit, and the need to sustain it. AAHomecare is committed to helping seniors and people living with disabilities regain their freedom and independence. To learn more about the Medicare power mobility benefit, go to www.aahomecare.org/mobility. American Association for Home-care - 2011 Crystal Drive, Suite 725, Arlington, Virginia 22202 -703.836.6263
The American Association for Home-care represents durable medical equipment providers, manufacturers, and others in the home-care community that serve the medical needs of millions of Americans who require oxygen equipment and therapy, mobility assistive technologies, medical supplies, inhalation drug therapy, and other medical equipment and services in their homes. Members operate more than 3,000 home-care locations in all 50 states. Please visit www.aahomecare.org/athome.