House lawmakers want bid details of durable medical equipment program

More than 130 House lawmakers have asked the Obama administration this month to announce the winners of Medicare's durable medical equipment (DME) competitive bidding program — a month ahead of schedule.

"Without knowing the identity as well as the appropriate overall qualifications of these providers, we cannot evaluate the program's impact in terms of quality and access to care for seniors we represent," the lawmakers wrote in an Aug. 11 letter to Donald Berwick, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Last month, CMS announced that Medicare patients in the nine regions affected by the first round of the DME competitive bidding program would save, on average, 32 percent on items including oxygen supplies, power wheelchairs and hospital beds. The agency said it will announce the contract winners in September, "once all contracts have been finalized."

The House lawmakers argue that the troubles surrounding the DME bidding process the first time it was tried in 2008 are reason enough for CMS to announce the contracts sooner.

"We want to ensure that qualified providers have been chosen to provide these items," they wrote.

The bidding program — designed to move Medicare's DME program toward a free-market payment system — is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1. The program is projected to save Medicare roughly $17 billion over the next decade.

The DME lobby, however, has argued that the bidding program will kill any number of small DME retailers, threatening seniors' access to vital medical equipment. 

The critics are hardly partisan. Indeed, the House letter was spearheaded by Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and Ralph Hall (R-Texas). Among the 136 signatories are conservative Republicans like Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Ron Paul (Texas) and liberal Democrats like Steve Cohen (Tenn.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).

The lawmakers asked CMS to provide the names by Aug. 20. An Altmire spokeswoman said Tuesday that CMS has not yet responded to the lawmakers' request.

Not all lawmakers are wary of the competitive bidding program. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Finance Committee, and Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), senior Republican on the Energy and Commerce panel, are among the bipartisan lawmakers who say the 32 percent projected savings is early indication that the program is working as designed. 

"I’m very pleased with these strong results," Baucus said in a statement last month, "and America’s seniors and taxpayers should be as well."