March 23, 2016

Hirono Introduces Fix To Maintain Medicare Access To Vital Medical Equipment

Senators Mazie K. Hirono, Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and John Thune (R-SD) introduced the Patient Access to Durable Medical Equipment Act, legislation that would provide durable medical equipment (DME) providers and patients in certain parts of the country with relief from harmful payment policies. DME providers help connect patients with medically necessary equipment like wheelchairs, hospital beds, and oxygen.

This bipartisan legislation would extend the current payment phase-in period of six months to 15 months, which is necessary to avert deep cuts in reimbursement for these products. Without action, these cuts could harm Medicare beneficiary access following the rollout of Medicare’s new payment policies to rural areas, including many Hawaii communities.

"When Hawaii residents came to me with concerns about accessing durable medical equipment under Medicare’s new reimbursement system, I began working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid and my Senate colleagues to find a solution for Hawaii seniors,” said Senator Hirono. “This measure makes necessary changes to the reimbursement system and takes into account different factors that rural providers face to allow Medicare beneficiaries uninterrupted access to durable medical equipment."

“For seniors throughout the country, including in rural areas like North Dakota and Hawaii, access to critical medical equipment like hospital beds, walkers, and oxygen supplies shouldn’t be a question,” said Senator Heitkamp. “All seniors should be able to live with dignity and the support they need. Our bipartisan bill, which Sen. Hirono cosponsored, would enable a smoother transition for this program so seniors continue to have access to needed medical equipment, without any interruptions.”

“We are very grateful to Senator Hirono for co-sponsoring this measure.  Seniors on Oahu have struggled with receiving needed medical equipment since Medicare rolled out one-size-fits-all cuts in 2013.  Local suppliers were largely shut out of this program and our members found it increasingly difficult to get their patients the items they needed to safely transition back to their home and resume their everyday lives.  The expansion of payment cuts to the neighbor islands will cause even worse disruptions in care.  The initial reductions that began in January are causing hardship to residents in the neighboring islands, who already pay higher costs to secure what they need because of additional distance and shipping costs. Hawaii’s seniors – most of whom are on fixed incomes—should not have to have their access to needed medical equipment in jeopardy,” said George Greene, President and CEO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

Senator Hirono has been working to address issues related to Medicare’s DME competitive bidding program since 2013 when the program was implemented in Honolulu. On January 1, 2016, the competitive bidding program began a wider rollout to rural Oahu and the Neighbor Islands, which are not competitive bidding areas, but are subject to new fee schedules that place a strain on many Hawaii DME providers. As a result, many areas, including rural areas, saw the first round of significant cuts, jeopardizing access to DME for beneficiaries. This legislation would correct this problem in a way that does not add to the federal debt.

Extending this phase-in until October 1, 2017, will allow Congress to properly monitor the rollout of this program – in real time – to ensure rural beneficiaries still have access to these medically necessary devices.

Also co-sponsoring this legislation are Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Pat Roberts (R-KN), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Steve Daines (R-MT.), John Barrasso (R-WY), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Angus King (I-ME), and Jon Tester (D-MT).