WICKER PARK — A change in Medicare reimbursements is resulting in neighborhood medical supply stores shutting and, say those opposed to the change, making it harder for people to obtain wheelchairs, walkers, canes and oxygen equipment.
Karen Walaszek is shutting her Master Medical Supplies at 1821 W. Chicago Ave. in Ukrainian Village after 30 years, saying the reimbursement change has "forced [me] into a corner."
Master Medical is one of perhaps dozens of shops closing in the Chicago area, a list that also includes Activa Medical Supply at 2212 W. North Ave. in Wicker Park.
Walaszek has posted an impassioned letter to customers on her website explaining that she has to "stop doing my passion in order to find a job so I can take care of my basic bills."
"My goal is to educate patients and the public [on what's happening]," Walaszek said in an interview.
Shop owners blame their closures on Medicare's new competitive bidding process, which went into effect July 1 in Chicago. Smaller stores across the country complain that under the new arrangement, the government reimbursement is too low to for them to operate — and that fewer stores will make it harder for patients to obtain products.
Medicare says the new process is designed to lower costs and combat fraud the system has experienced over the years in the area of prosthetics and other equipment. A pilot program "had very few complaints" and "no negative impact" on users, Medicaid says, though the medical supply industry disputes that.
Walaszek says her shop specialized in not only quality products but personalized service that included educating patients on how to use the items. Small shop owners argue that with the new Medicare system rules forcing them out, that kind of extra attention will no longer be available to people.
The Chicago office of Activa Medical Supply plans to close "any day now," according to owner Gene Topaz.
Topaz said he has more than 1,500 customers in the Chicago area and he's been staying in business to serve his clients but cannot afford to keep open his storefront in Wicker Park.
Topaz said his profits would be down 85 percent if he stayed open, due to the Medicare cuts. In one example, reimbursements for diabetic supplies were cut by 72 percent.
"We're phasing out inventory, servicing the patients still left," said Topaz.
Topaz called Medicare's competitive bidding "extremely disruptive, to patients, suppliers and manufacturers" and alleges there was "no transparency in their decision-making process and how they selected pricing."
While Topaz plans to work from home or sell some items online that are not part of competitive bidding such as remote-controlled lift chairs or portable commodes "it's not enough to keep the doors open," he said.
On a local level, the changes will impact West Town residents like Karen Edwards, 56, who is on Medicare and lives three blocks away from Master Medical Supply.
Confined to a wheelchair, Edwards suffers from diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which requires her to use oxygen equipment.
Edwards' daughter Dawn Garcia purchases equipment for her mother and heard about Master Medical Supplies closing on Thursday when she went in to purchase supplies.
"I was surprised. I want to see if there is anything I can do to keep [Master Medical Supplies] open."
Garcia said she spends about $100 monthly at Master Medical Supplies, where she buys oxygen supplies such as tubes and filters and compression socks, among other items.
Garcia said she had "no clue" where she would find supplies for her mother once Master Medical Supply closed.
Medicare says patients can find stores by searching with their ZIP code here.
The program, part of the federal government's sweeping Obamacare reforms, is expected to save $43 billion over 10 years, Medicare says. An earlier pilot program resulted in few customer complaints, according to the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.
But Ryan Ball of the VGM Group, a medical equipment association, said 1,700 people registered complaints with the People for Quality Care organization, mostly from people who couldn't find a provider or were in need of repairs for their devices.
"The current procurement system is destroying the Medicare program and its network of compassionate providers while endangering patients," Tyler Wilson, president of the American Association for Homecare. "Congress has to take action."