By Mark E. Smith
When David A. Fahrenthold, reporter for the Washington Post, asked me on July 21, 2014, “How do you explain the Russian mafia, then?” he finally had me stumped. Up until that point of the interview, I held my own when it came to explaining the challenges that many with disabilities face in obtaining life-sustaining power wheelchairs through Medicare. But, the Russian mafia? Well, he had me on that one.
“I don’t know anything about the Russian mafia,” I replied. “Again, David, those of us with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis have to fight bureaucracy and cutbacks to such a degree that it takes some a year to get a vital power chair – and even then it’s often not funded to the fullest extent of technology needed. Medicare’s policies continue harming those most in need….”
See, all this started when Fahrenthold sought to interview me for a story he was striving to flesh out for the Washington Post. As he put it, “I’m looking to do a story on people with disabilities defrauding Medicare to get motorized wheelchairs.”
I took the absurdity of his premise seriously, seeing the interview as an opportunity to educate him. Of course those of us with disabilities aren’t looking to defraud anyone. We use our power chairs out of medical necessity, wishing to live socially-inclusive lives, where obtaining funding for a power chair is a lengthy, difficult process that, by its inequitable nature, harms many in need, depriving vital mobility. I explained that no one chooses disability or wishes to fight lengthy insurance battles to obtain the mobility needed to pursue education, family, career or community – it’s among the unjust challenges that often come with disability. I even explained the medical documentation trail, required supplier certifications and standards of practice, and why pending legislation to sustain access for complex rehab technology is vital to my peers.
“I’ve had cerebral palsy my entire life, and worked in the mobility industry for 17 years,” I told Fahrenthold. “Never have I met anyone using a power chair who hasn’t needed it out of medical necessity. It’s simply illogical to think that those of us with disabilities are defrauding anyone. To the contrary, we continue struggling to obtain the technology that allows full social inclusion.”
Fahrenthold became more insistent that those of us with disabilities had to be defrauding the government to get power chairs, and when I asked what incentive there was for me or my peers to perpetrate such a supposed crime, he had no answer.
“If I offered you a free power chair, would you take it?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I don’t need one,” he said.
“Exactly,” I replied.
He paused, then stated, “But, I’m not a crook.”
No, Fahrenthold wasn’t a crook, but he wasn’t being an ethical journalist, either. He continued pressing me to somehow say something that would substantiate that those of us with disabilities are defrauding the government to get power wheelchairs. It was at that point that he asked me to explain the Russian mafia.
Now, my back story is intriguing, but the whole story gets more disturbing for those of us with disabilities. On August 16, 2014, the Washington Post ran Fahrenthold’s story, the headline reading, “A medicare scam that just kept rolling: The government has paid billions to buy power wheelchairs. It has no idea how many of the claims are bogus.”
And, neither does Fahrenthold. He interviewed me and several other advocate-experts who told him the truth and reality of power chair funding, and he blatantly omitted us and the truth entirely. Fahrenthold got his story – but wrote it ignoring all facts.
So, what was in Fahrenthold’s story? Conjecture, the Russian mob and, indirectly, a sitcom as his source.
In his article, he pieces together a crazy cast of characters from the 1990s and early 2000s who round up immigrants, steal dead doctors’ identities, and then the Russian mob and others somehow convert it all into a scheme to prescribe those who are able-bodied wheelchairs, whom then use them to, in one case illustrated, hold giant, stuffed teddy bears. After interviewing me and other advocate-experts, this is the literal story Fahrenthold came up with.
Yet, Fahrenthold didn’t stop there. Because there’s no evidence of power chair fraud in the real world of present, he speculates on what criminals will target in the realm of Medicare fraud: “In Puerto Rico, the next big thing seems to be arms and legs.”
After going through this experience, and wondering why Fahrenthold would go through such lengths to try to create a public stigma that paints those of us with disabilities as crooks because we need wheelchairs, I did some research on him. On his professional Twitter page, in promoting his “story” on power wheelchair fraud, guess what he retweeted to support his case…. A YouTube clip of the Seinfeld character, George Costanza, using a mobility scooter. By his own tweeting admission, Fehrenthold’s inspiration and indirect source was a sitcom.
Yet, unlike David A. Fahrenthold’s farfetched account published in the Washington Post, life for those of us who rely on life-sustaining power wheelchairs isn’t “bogus” or a sitcom. It’s very real.