Bureaucracy nearly got a quadriplegic woman killed

Posted: January 15, 2014

THERE'S A SPECIAL place in hell for the people whose bureaucratic BS put Meredith Gill in the middle of busy John F. Kennedy Boulevard in a broken wheelchair.

Gill, a quadriplegic, was crossing the boulevard earlier this month when her motorized wheelchair suddenly stopped. Luckily she had the green light, so she was able to lurch it back to life long enough to get to the sidewalk.

By the time she got to her job at Hahnemann University Hospital, with her chair jolting to a stop every few feet, Gill was in tears.

How Gill found herself in such a horrible situation is complicated but boils down to this: Gill is in the pincers of a seemingly well-intentioned vendor and the morass that is Medicare.

"Everyone seems to agree it's not my fault," Gill said. "But it's still my problem."

In 2002, Gill was in a car accident that caused permanent paralysis from her chest down. Since then, the feisty and wickedly funny 35-year-old has worked hard to remain independent. Every morning, the recent University of Pennsylvania master's of social work graduate wakes at 5 and prepares for work with the help of her mother. She rolls herself to the train station 10 minutes away from her Abington home. Once she gets to Suburban Station, she rolls another 10 minutes to her internship at a violence-intervention program called Healing Hurt People, where she advocates on behalf of clients.

"I like to be as independent as possible," she said.

But that independence depends on a working wheelchair. Without one, Gill is confined to bed.

After she got her wheelchair from Abet Medical in 2009, Gill would occasionally hear something about some billing problem. But when she'd pursue it with Abet and Medicare, she would be told it was being resolved.

Then in May, nearly fours years later, Gill says, she got a call from Vincent Naples, the owner of the Abet Medical equipment company. He was referring her account to collections for nonpayment for the price of the nearly $30,000 chair.

Gill contacted U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz's office, which triggered an inquiry that showed Abet Medical had failed to submit the proper paperwork - which is why Medicare didn't pay.

It's important to note here that neither Abet nor Medicare ever asked her to return the chair, Gill said.

This is where Gill admits she probably made a bad call. When Gill was told she was eligible for a new chair, she chose to go through Abet again.

"They are close to my house," she said. "And the repair guys are really terrific."

But once again Medicare denied payment for what it claimed was improperly submitted paperwork. This time, Medicare said its decision couldn't be appealed for six months. But, if she agreed to use another vendor, they could possibly get her a new chair faster.

Gill reluctantly agreed, which apparently didn't sit so well with Abet's Naples. So, when Gill's mom brought her chair in for new batteries, he kept it. He returned it after she paid for new batteries, but then it died on JFK Boulevard.

Gill was forced to borrow a chair from a friend's elderly father, which not only didn't fit properly, but also stopped working.

Look, I've done my share of these bureaucratic black-hole stories, so when Gill contacted me, I knew that this would take some time to sort out, if ever.

But when I got a desperate-sounding email from Gill saying that her borrowed chair had broken and she was stranded in her office, I called Naples and implored him to be human. I would have asked the same of Medicare, but I couldn't get a human to call me back that day.

After my call, Naples repaired Gill's borrowed chair. Later, he loaned her a better-fitting temporary one and told her that he'd work with her to try to get her in a new customized one, so long as Medicare covers it.

And so long as his company doesn't come off looking bad in my column, he told me in a subsequent conversation.

Naples insists he's not the bad guy. He said he's gone above and beyond for clients, at deep financial and personal costs.

It's business, he said. He said the real problem is a broken Medicare system that changes rules at a whim and penalizes the most vulnerable. Finger-pointing isn't going to help Gill, but Medicare's response to my questions didn't do a lot to argue against Naples' point of view.

"This is a national problem," he said. "Where are all the politicians on this issue?"

The day Gill got stuck in the middle of JFK Boulevard, she emailed several of her local reps, including Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, Montgomery County Commission Chairman Josh Shapiro and state Rep. Madeleine Dean. So far, crickets.

"All I want to do is be able to go to my internship, see my friends, and live my life just like everybody else," Gill said.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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