Hundreds of patients wait for answers and life-saving medical supplies

Vanguard Medical's closure left hundreds looking for a new supplier.

PAWTUCKET, RI (WPRI) – Busy signals and unfilled orders continue to frustrate hundreds of local patients waiting for vital medical supplies following the unexpected closure of a Warwick company, and a Pawtucket pharmacy owner claims the root of the problem involves changes in the government’s bidding process.

National medical supply company Lincare, which has an office in East Providence, acquired Warwick based Vanguard Home Medical in a deal that closed in late August. Sources close to the companies, who asked not to be named, peg the number of impacted patients at over 500.

Since a Target 12 report last week, more than a dozen of Vanguard’s now former customers told the Target 12 Investigators they had no idea the change was in the works, and they are now learning that Lincare cannot seem to supply them with key items.

A mother in Providence said her child needs a special type of tracheotomy tube to breath. Another parent did not identify the exact items in her missing shipment, but called them “life support.”

For Newport’s Kyle Maloney, who has cerebral palsy, the unfilled and undelivered order was a month’s worth of tube-fed formula that is his only source of nutrition. His mother Kim Early is his primary caregiver, but she gave up on Lincare and found a new supplier in Ohio that would accept Neighborhood Healthcare of Rhode Island.

“It was frustrating,” Early said. “Lincare said they’d cover our order but of course never said when. We had only three days of food left.”

Simpson’s Pharmacy in Pawtucket is one of the few Rhode Island businesses left that offer durable medical equipment and supplies. Co-owner Carol Smith, whose grandfather started the business in 1929, said her phones started ringing off the hook after Vanguard was gobbled up by Lincare, with patients and others looking for help with a variety of orders.

“Mostly because they either can’t get their supplies, they can’t get them soon enough, they can’t jump through the Medicare hoops fast enough,” Smith said. “I don’t think there was enough warning is what we’re hearing.”

Early and several others confirmed the lack of a warning.

“A letter or something would’ve given us more time to find vendors,” Early said.

Smith said local suppliers started going out of business about two years ago after Medicare introduced non-binding, competitive bidding to their process. She said the goal was probably to lower costs, but the result was larger companies undercut smaller ones like hers.

“We placed bids,” Smith said. “But we didn’t win any.”

And according to Smith, the fact that bids were non-binding made it even worse since in some cases the companies later determined their winning bids were too low to profit. She said her industry calls this type of practice a “suicide bid”, which is a low-ball offer that is later killed by the bidder themselves.

“A lot of those companies {that won bids} never took those contracts,” Smith said. “A company in Florida or Texas that was awarded a contract in Rhode Island never intended to honor the contract. They were just driving down the prices.”

In Smith’s opinion, they’re also driving companies like Vanguard out of business and creating a void for patients like Maloney. Smith said the Medicare bidding changes that led to mostly out-of-state companies trying to fill Rhode Island orders have provoked some fixed income patients to pay for items out-of-pocket locally, instead of dealing with the red tape of going elsewhere.

“These other companies will usually deliver items that need to be put together or the quality isn’t good. Older patients especially don’t want to deal with that,” Smith said. “So the patients lose and they’re spending money, buying things that should get covered by medicare for free.”

A woman who identified herself as a manager at Lincare’s East Providence office said she could not comment.

Medicare spokesperson William Polglase said anyone who cannot fill an order that they believe should be covered by Medicare or Medicaid should first contact the supplier to file a complaint, and then call 1-800-MEDICARE if their issue is not rectified.

One patient who contacted Target 12, but also asked not to be identified, said she would do that — after she finds a way to fill her medical supply order.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

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