BY BETH REINHARD
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek is trying to kill a fledgling program that the federal government claims will deflate Medicare costs by requiring competitive bids from companies that provide medical equipment like oxygen tanks and wheelchairs.
The congressman's legislation, which is backed by the medical supply industry and opposed by AARP, has formed a new line of attack for rival Jeff Greene in the Democratic Senate primary.
Greene pointed to tens of thousands of dollars that Meek has received from medical suppliers before and after he introduced the bill.
"This is yet another example of a broken political system where corrupt politicians, like Kendrick Meek, put special interests ahead of the needs and well-being of Florida's citizens," Greene's campaign said in a prepared statement.
Meek's bill would end the competitive bidding program before it starts. He said it needs to be scrapped because it would allow illegitimate and inexperienced companies to get into the game. He noted the program's 2008 false start.
"It was delayed because they had problems with folks lowballing the bid and not able to follow through on the bid," Meek said. "And then you have a number of small businesses, especially in this state, that would spend thousands of dollars in staff hours in putting together a responsible bid and they were shut out of the process."
The debate over tackling Medicare fraud and abuse stands out for its wonkishness in a race mostly characterized by harsh personal attacks on Greene's business background and Meek's ties to a developer charged with fraud. The rising cost of Medicare is one of the biggest problems plaguing seniors.
Meek's office pointed to the broad support for his legislation from 252 members of the House, including 18 of the 25 members from Florida. The bipartisan group of co-sponsors includes Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, and Democrats Kathy Castor of Tampa, Alcee Hastings of Miramar and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
Sean Schwinghammer, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Homecare Services, which represents companies that provide medical equipment and supplies, said the government should focus more on reducing costs in hospitals and doctors' offices. He said increasing government regulation has already forced 50 percent of the businesses in his industry to close.
"What Medicare has been doing under the auspices of anti-fraud and controlling costs is just squeezing the little guy," he said.
But supporters of the competitive bidding program say the cost savings will outweigh any inconveniences for Medicare beneficiaries who have to switch equipment providers. A pilot project under the 2003 law that introduced competitive bidding showed a 20 percent cost savings without a negative impact on patients, said AARP Florida director Lori Parham.
"We support competitive bidding because we see it as a way to rein in costs," she said.
The first round of the program is scheduled to begin in January in nine areas of the country, including Miami and Orlando. The federal government says Medicare beneficiaries will see an average savings of 32 percent.
St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.