Congress Tries to Keep Medicare Coverage for Oxygen Tank Users

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In last-minute, pre-dawn wrangling, members of Congress reversed a change in Medicare coverage for oxygen tank users that would have ended payments for the equipment after 18 months.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, normally an immovable budget hawk, threatened to derail a $40 billion deficit-cutting budget bill in the Senate if the House slashed federal payments to oxygen and oxygen-tank suppliers.

"I want to save money and cut costs, but all that was driving them was to see how they could do it without looking back to see who it would hurt," Voinovich told The Associated Press on Monday.

Currently, Medicare pays for oxygen supply, tanks and maintenance for as long as an eligible patient uses them; the average usage period is 30 months. Early Monday, a joint House-Senate committee crafted a compromise that would have cut off Medicare coverage for oxygen tanks after 18 months.

Invacare Corp. of Elyria, Ohio, the world's largest wheelchair maker and also a major producer of respiratory equipment, notified Voinovich of the new oxygen tank provision.

At Voinovich's urging, members of the Ohio delegation -- Republican Reps. David Hobson, Ralph Regula, Pat Tiberi, and Steven LaTourette -- asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to extend the coverage to 36 months.

That change wiped away $1.9 billion in estimated savings.

Invacare's vice president for government relations, Cara Bachenheimer, said the original compromise would have created a needless burden for frail Medicare beneficiaries.

"Forcing a beneficiary to purchase medical equipment when they have no desire to is silly; it makes no sense," she said. "And from our selfish industry perspective, our customers lose their inventory. It's a rental industry and this puts the beneficiary at risk."

The oxygen tank provision was tacked onto compromise legislation that would have transferred ownership of durable medical equipment, like hospital beds and wheelchairs, to Medicare Part B beneficiaries after 13 months.

Supporters of the change said beneficiaries and Medicare were paying off most of the equipment in six months and shouldn't have to keep making monthly payments.

The Senate could vote on the compromise bill as early as Tuesday.