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Feds Take On Rascals Who Bilk Medicare, Seniors On Pricey Mobility Scooters

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The ads have become inescapable on cable TV: Seniors merrily rolling around town on electric mobility scooters like the Rascal, enjoying new levels of freedom in their retirement. Elderly couples, once relegated to the couch, wheeling side-by-side up to the Grand Canyon. And the best part: Medicare covers the whole thing.

Would you believe there's quite a bit of rascally behavior surrounding this industry?

So much so that the government is tripling its efforts to prosecute people who rip off Medicare by overbilling or filing fraudulent claims for the $4,000 devices, USA Today reports.

Distribution of mobility scooters to the old and infirm is rapidly growing into a giant, dirty business. Medicare spending on motorized wheelchairs was up to $723 million in 2009, from $259 million a decade earlier. And 61% of Medicare users getting the devices in the second half of 2007 didn't qualify for them, according to a new government report.

Medicare coverage for motorized wheelchairs is meant for patients who can't get around with a walker or a regular wheelchair. But with lots of money to be made from getting people into the devices and charging the government, scooter hucksters have taken to pushing them on pliant Medicare users, often immigrants who are in line for other services. From USA Today:

"They'll say, 'The government would really like for you to have a wheelchair,'" said Julie Schoen, director of special projects for California's Senior Medicare Patrol. Then, she said, the scammer will take the Medicare recipient to a "clinic" for an exam.

The patient will often receive a wheelchair, but not a motorized wheelchair worth about $3,600 for which Medicare will be billed, Schoen said.

Victims of the scam are on record with Medicare as having received a motorized chair, so if they ever actually do need one, the government won't cover it.

Often it's seniors, not the government, footing the bill for scooters they don't need or can't use. A favorite tactic of Electric Mobility Corporation, maker of the Rascal, is a Publisher's Clearing House-like sweepstakes, where seniors give up their phone numbers for a chance to win a free Rascal. According to numerous reports on consumer websites, Electric Mobility salespeople then start calling to offer an in-home demo of the device they supposedly have a chance to win. If the customer agrees, they're subjected to a high-pressure pitch, often accompanied by false or misleading claims about the scooter's capabilities and cost of ownership.

In some cases, customers and their adult offspring allege, the salespeople will lie about Medicare reimbursement, promising a full or partial refund; by the time Medicare declines to pay, the scooter is already ordered or shipped. Others complain of being told falsely that the scooter will work with the car lift for their existing wheelchair, or that it will come with a lift that never materializes. Another common problem seems to be components that repeatedly break, requiring expensive replacements from the company.

Electric Mobility's scammy sweepstakes earned it an FTC fine in April for violating the national do-not-call registry, and attorneys general in New Jersey and Washington state have forced it to cough up cash and promise to change its sales and service practices.

Even in cases where salespeople didn't lie to customers, there's something dubious about the idea of pushing expensive equipment on the elderly unsolicited. Here, a man describes why his 87-year-old mother couldn't refuse a high-pressure home sales call for a Rascal she would never use: “She later (she hide the purchase from her family because she was so embarrassed that she had bought it) explained that the salesman just wouldn't leave and after 5 hours or more she simply felt compelled to buy or the man wouldn't leave. I would like to spend 5 hours with this salesman and I can assure you he will need a Rascal 600.”

It's a wonder we haven't seen reports of these folks being run out of town by geriatric scooter-jockeys, like George Costanza in this classic Seinfeld clip:

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