This article originally appeared in Networks, a publication of The National Council on the Aging. Used with permission.

For the aged and disabled, motorized wheelchairs and scooters can often restore freedom and self-reliance. But at several thousand dollars each, these buggies represent a major investment that should not be undertaken lightly, despite the pitches and promises of a growing army of high-pressure in-home salesmen who often falsely tell consumers that Medicare will reimburse them for their purchase.

In fact, Medicare covers such purchases only under very limited conditions, said Joe Scinto of the United Seniors Health Cooperative, a not-for-profit Washington, D.C. consumer organization.

Under certain circumstances, Medicare will pay 80 percent the cost of durable medical equipment. And many medical suppliers do offer a rent-to-buy option, Scinto said, but he cautioned that consumers should make arrangements in advance with their Medicare carrier.

"Usually, local medical supply houses are the best source of electric scooters, not door-to-door salesmen," Scinto said.

In Salem, Mo., a small town southwest of St. Louis, an older woman who asked that her name not be used bought a Rascal Scooter, a popular model manufactured by Electric Mobility Corp., from a salesman who came to her home. She said the salesman promised her that she would receive in-home training and a free set of ramps to help her load the Scooter on and off her pickup truck.

But the training didn't happen, the company sent her 10-foot ramps that were too large for her to handle, and the woman fell while trying to maneuver the Rascal off the truck, suffering a concussion and other injuries. She later recovered, and the company eventually provided the proper ramps and the training session, her son said in an interview.

One buyer in Lehighton, PA, was not so lucky. His father, 89, responded to a newspaper advertisement that offered a "free in-home test ride." A salesman who came to his home allegedly told the purchaser’s father that he would receive a $250 discount and a free set of ramps if he bought the Rascal on the first visit. He also promised to help the older man to apply for Medicare reimbursement for the scooter, the family said.

But after the $4,587 order was signed and the check written, the salesman was nowhere to be found, no ramps arrived, no training was provided, there was no Medicare reimbursement, and the price turned out to be several hundred dollars above what others had paid, the buyer said. A customer service representative of the New Jersey company told the consumer that he "should have shopped around."

After the buyer complained to an online consumer site, the company promised to send the ramps but did not do so. Eventually, the customer retained an attorney who negotiated a settlement.

During the lengthy squabble with Electric Mobility, the older man’s strength and determination to fight his isolation waned, and he now "has just about given up," his son said.

One disgruntled customer started a Web site to air his complaints against the company. He said the company ignored the site for three years but recently took an interest in it and offered the man a free scooter if he would take the site down.

Electric Mobility's president, Michael Flowers, denies his company takes advantage of older consumers and says that 18 percent of Rascal owners are repeat customers.

The lesson for consumers: Most importantly, Medicare does not reimburse you if you simply go out and buy a scooter on your own. If may reimburse up to 80 percent of the cost of renting a scooter, but you must have a prescription from a physician-specialist approved by the Health Care Financing Administration. Experts also warn that patients disabled enough to qualify for the coverage often lack the physical skills to maneuver the scooters. It is vital that you check with your Medicare carrier before signing any kind of agreement.

For those who want to own their own scooter, the purchase is a big investment and should be handled carefully. Consumer advocates advise the following:

  • Don't buy the first model you look at, especially from a salesman who comes to your home. This is almost invariably the most expensive way to buy any product.
  • Ask others who use electric scooters about their experiences, pro and con.
  • Consider buying a used scooter. Like used cars, they can offer good value at lower cost.
  • Check with local medical supply stores, lawnmower and bicycle repair shops to see if they service the model you are thinking of buying. They may also sell scooters.
  • If you do decide to buy a new scooter, do so only after checking in detail with your Medicare or other carrier to be certain you know the reimbursement terms. Have a relative, friend or trusted advisor with you when you negotiate the purchase. Get everything in writing and be certain to retain a complete copy of the sales contract and financing agreement, if any.
  • Remember, no promise is binding unless it is part of the contract.

 Copyright 1999 The National Council on the Aging.  Used with permission.