Keeping your independence as you age is a near-universal goal. Mobility is the defining characteristic of independence. Walking, driving or getting yourself around with a wheelchair, scooter or walker all contribute to that sense of independence. But with approximately 10,000 persons turning 65 daily, the market for mobility devices is predicted to keep growing.
A brief look at the mobility market reveals some interesting facts. You can rent a mini-van with wheelchair access, for either the driver or a passenger. You can buy a Chevy truck designed to let a wheelchair-bound person drive. Wheelchairs and canes should be custom fitted. The correct shoes can help you keep walking. And those cute sit-down scooters are more affordable than ever.
Durable medical equipment, which includes wheelchairs and walkers, is available at stand-alone medical supply stores and at many pharmacies across the Valley. Despite the morass that is Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurers, these businesses have customers lining up for their products and services.
Registered nurse Danny Acebedo left his job as director of cardiology services at a clinic to start Mediforce LLC with his wife Janie, also an RN. The company provides mobility aids ranging from wheelchairs and diabetic shoes to installing and servicing wheelchair lifts and stair lifts. “There was a need for specialized services. It took us a few years to get certified to provide all the services,” said Acebedo.
Ten years on, he is now a certified pedorthist, trained in custom fitting specialized footwear and orthotics that help people regain or retain the ability to walk. In April two more of Mediforce’s nine employees attended a two-week intensive boot camp for pedorthists. “The demand across the Valley is so great we cannot meet it.”
Mediforce displays about 150 different diabetic shoe styles, all of them special ordered after an assessment of the patient. The Valley is infamous for the high incidence of diabetic patients, who generally have poor circulation and damage to the nerves in their extremities, Acebedo explained. “They lose sensation in their feet and their healing process is very slow. Diabetes is the number one cause of amputations. Diabetic shoes help prevent amputations because they protect the foot.”
“We want to specialize in foot pain relief,” he said. The main reason people request orthotics is to ease the pain of plantar fasciitis. “The advantage we have here is in-house custom fabrication of orthotics and custom inserts. It gives us a faster turnaround, and we can do modifications as they wait.”
Amputees, as well as persons with other health problems and injuries, turn to wheelchairs and scooters to maintain their mobility and independence. “When you provide mobility devices, you have to do assessments before you provide the ride. Otherwise you can shortchange the patient,” Acebedo said.
Mediforce staff go to the customers’ homes to see the where the patients will use the device. “With a scooter, you will end up making three-point turns. You can’t back up. Manual and powered wheelchairs have good maneuverability. It depends on what they need. If they have steps, we can provide ramps, either portable or permanent installations.” Nevertheless, scooters start around $1,500, and more people are buying them. Mediforce has certified scooter techs.
Rollators are popular, almost stylish walkers with seats, brakes and even baskets. Canes come in many styles, with the most stable being the quad, which has four prongs.
“Baby boomers are more aware of the possibilities (of mobility devices) because a majority of them have come here with their parents,” Acebedo explained. “They are well informed and absorbing what’s going. They are willing to spend money to take care of themselves. They don’t want to get cut off by losing their mobility.” That generation includes a lot of potential mobility customers.
As nurses, the Acebedos are interested in educating their patients. “When they have questions, we are here. I enjoy talking to the patients about diabetes. And as a company, we are involved in the community with diabetic education,” helping people retain their mobility.
At least 50% of the accessible vans and vehicles that Adaptive Driving Access sells go to wheelchair-using drivers, according to Pat Machamer. The company, with offices in McAllen, Corpus Christi and Houston, converts mini-vans, SUVS and trucks to make them accessible, doing much more than installing ramps and lifts. “We fit the vehicle to the specific needs of the buyer. They can be very low tech or very high tech. We also sell modified Chevy Silverado pickups that enable the end-user to stay in a power-chair and the lift takes them to either the driver seat or passenger seat.” Accessibility elements include hand controls and steering knobs, lowered floors that allow a wheelchair to be locked in place, and lifts that place wheelchairs into the bed of a truck.
Adaptive Driving Access offers accessible van rentals by the day, weekend, week and month. “This lets them test out different vehicles,” said Machamer. “A lot of people who rent from us become buyers. It all depends on what they are looking for. We call the vans ‘doors to independence.’”
The new technology surprises those unacquainted with the industry. “We recommend people buy already converted vehicles because it can take six to eight weeks to convert a van or truck.”
At Saenz Pharmacy, Hidalgo County’s largest independent pharmacy, Jesus Alberto Saenz is determined to keep his durable medical equipment department open. “I can make a full circle of service for my patients this way.” Yet his volume is down because he no longer services Medicare accounts due to the drastically lowered reimbursement rate for wheelchairs and walkers. “You’re talking about delivery drivers, and wear and tear on equipment: when you add all the numbers, it doesn’t cover the costs.”
Veronica Godoy said 80% of the customers she sees at Saenz for wheelchairs are hip replacement patients in rehab. “Mostly I work with DHR. They are good about sending me the order the day before. I try to have at least one of everything they order on hand.” A major seller is the hip kit, which contains a reacher with claws, a long shoehorn, a sponge on a stick and a plastic form to help pull on socks.
Godoy said the balance of wheelchair patients are stroke patients, people recuperating under workman’s comp, and children and adults with broken legs and hips.
May 2016 cover story by Eileen Mattei