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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

The sneaky way inflation is hurting seniors

Oct 03, 2022 11:32AM ● By Thomas Ryan

Inflation has soared to the highest level in four decades. Gas is roughly 40 percent more expensive than it was a year ago. Groceries are up about 10 percent.

Yet there’s one sector of the economy where prices are growing much more slowly: health care. And ironically, that’s creating problems for patients who rely on home medical equipment like power wheelchairs, ventilators and home oxygen equipment.

The providers they depend on for their home care are getting walloped by rising labor, transportation and material costs. But unlike other businesses, they can’t simply raise prices to compensate. Their prices are effectively set by Medicare. Those reimbursement rates are based on a seven-year-old formula that barely covered providers’ costs before inflation took off.

Unless Congress intervenes to raise reimbursement rates soon, millions of Americans would no longer be able to get the care they need at home. At best, they’d have to move into nursing homes or other clinical facilities. At worst, some could go without care altogether.

The double whammy of inflation and supply chain snags has hit home care companies hard. Key supplies like replacement parts for power wheelchairs and tubing for home oxygen machines have been hard to come by. When the equipment patients and home care providers need is available, the price of shipping and transportation is almost prohibitive. 

Imagine a senior with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, who is dependent on home oxygen. If her home care provider scales back service in her community or exits Medicare entirely because of stagnant payment rates and rising costs, then she may have to seek care more frequently in expensive clinical settings, or may end up in the emergency room.

Or consider someone who relies on a wheelchair to live independently. If the home care provider they rely on to service their wheelchair disappears, possible consequences include impaired mobility at home, the need to bring on a part- or full-time caregiver, or even transitioning to an assisted living facility.

Scenarios like these are already happening. And the problems will multiply if home medical equipment reimbursement rates remain unchanged even as inflation spikes.

Thankfully, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House have introduced legislation that would address this looming crisis. The DMEPOS Relief Act would raise payments for many providers of home medical equipment by an average of 9 percent. This would provide a lifeline to local home medical equipment providers burdened by inflation and more importantly, the patients who rely on them for care.

It’s also inexpensive, relative to Medicare’s budget. Home medical equipment accounts for less than 2 percent of Medicare spending. More importantly, home-based care can keep people out of higher-cost environments like hospitals and nursing homes.

The current inflationary spiral is a national crisis. Home care providers and the patients they serve are finding that out the hard way. It’s time for Congress to ensure these patients can get the care they need by updating Medicare’s reimbursement rates.

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