CARY, N.C. – From her home office in Cary, North Carolina, Beth Bowen has guided various state associations for the past three decades. Look closely at advocacy photos that cover HME-related political events on the eastern seaboard, and you’re likely to see her smiling face.
These days, Bowen is executive director for associations that cover seven states, specifically:
• Atlantic Coast Medical Equipment Services Association (ACMESA) overseeing North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia;
• Association for Tennessee Home Oxygen & Medical Equipment Services (ATHOMES) serving Tennessee;
• Florida Alliance of Home Care Services (FAHCS) serving Florida; and
• Northeast Medical Equipment Providers Association (NEMEP) serving New York and New Jersey.
As a veteran of the state association trenches since 1991, Bowen has seen the industry’s evolution—from the infamous “golden commode” days to competitive bidding, and now to a state of hard-won respect.
Legislators know the industry, and many ascribe value to its products and services, thanks in part to Bowen, her state association colleagues, and officials at AAHomecare. Medtrade Monday sat down with Bowen to gauge her thinking during this time of global pandemic, as well as to gain insight into one of the industry’s most energetic organizers.
Medtrade Monday: What level of unity are you seeing in legislative messaging?
Bowen: I think we match up pretty well in our work with NCART, VGM, and AAHomecare. Everybody seems to be singing the same song, and a little bit more in tune than in years past. I’m so grateful for that, because it used to make our job so hard when there were so many different factions and people going every which way. That isn’t happening as much now, so that’s huge. We must continue to underscore how important DME is in the services we provide and in the cost savings we make possible; especially when it comes to getting patients out of the hospital sooner to prepare for the potential spike in COVID patients.
Medtrade Monday: In some ways, does the pandemic make that message more potent?
Bowen: What better time to underscore our importance? HME providers are on the front lines too. To secure PPE, we had to get with local emergency management associations and/or departments to try to get on the list to make sure they knew we were front line. We needed the PPE. What better time to show congress or local state legislators how important we are?
The please-don’t-cut-us-anymore kind of conversations tend to make more sense now when they see how we fit into this pandemic. There have even been discussions in some states, here and there, about hazard pay. In addition, there are concerns about managed care and the pay of managed care—and not going below the rate—or saying, ‘I’ll give you a contract for 25 percent off the Medicare rate but that’s just not acceptable.’ Those kinds of discussions have been happening all over the place.
Medtrade Monday: How have providers in your seven states responded to the virus crisis?
Bowen: Some of the providers really rallied their troops. They hit social media harder, they had slogans, they showed pictures of masks and sanitizing equipment. They were making statements, showing video, and saying, ‘We’ll come to your car.’ All the thank yous to the front line workers make people feel appreciated and feel better about what they do.
Medtrade Monday: What are you hearing about the day-to-day lives of your providers?
Beth Bowen: I think they are concerned for their employees and their safety. You put a sign on your door saying check your temperature, wash your hands, sanitize. What are people doing when they get equipment back? For those who are working from home, how do you keep them in the company mix in a productive way?
Medtrade Monday: What have the last few months been like for you in your work life?
Bowen: Well, fortunately I didn’t have to undergo the scary transition to the home office because I was used to working from home. Honestly, the first three months—March, April, May—it was just insane. I mean, just like everybody else, I was trying to get a grasp on what the pandemic was and what we would need to do, particularly in contacting each state Medicaid department.
Thanks to the work of AAHomecare and VGM, we’ve had a lot of information to share with the Medicaid directors and contacts within each state. We had letters, we follow up, and in some cases we have to get better contacts to send the information to. It was really a struggle to send all that out, and then to follow up and maintain some kind of organization with all the forgiveness and extensions of deadlines. Payers within each state were so different, and of course the private pay. We had a lot of work with AAHomecare on those issues which was fabulous. Not only that, but scheduling all the webinars and trying to keep up with all the information that was out there. I value the camaraderie and collaboration with other state association directors across the country. We try to help each other out tremendously, and I lean on many of them for assistance. We share ideas in so many ways, because why reinvent the wheel, right?
Medtrade Monday: What kind of work hours have you been keeping?
Bowen: My office days were 12 to 14 hours for a long time, just trying to keep on top of it all, so that was kind of hard. That was one of the things that surprised me. Some of my friends were saying, ‘I’m so bored, I’m furloughed or working from home and getting my work done in four hours instead of eight. I’m going to clean out a closet.’ I was really surprised at how busy I was, and grateful to have a job because so many have lost their job or been furloughed.
Medtrade Monday: What would you say to someone on the fence about joining a state association?
Bowen: I hear a lot of really positive feedback from state association members who are grateful for all the information. We summarize the information all in one spot. Providers see the value in a local connection. With state associations, the advocacy, communication, education, and networking—those are elements that people seek. Those are reasons to join an association.
Recently, the networking piece has been kind of weird, because you can’t do face-to-face. However, the Zoom calls and all these other virtual video calls came into play, and that helped. Now it’s a little bit different, because you’re not sitting at the bar talking, but you’re at least exchanging information.
Medtrade Monday: At least for a while, you were making information available to everyone, regardless of membership, correct?
Bowen: Yes, we made a decision early on to say, ‘You know what, we’re sending all our stuff to everybody. We’re not singling out members only.’ All these newsletters and all the stuff I sent out, it went to everyone. Membership recruiting and/or following up invoice payments took a back seat.
Medtrade Monday: As of late June, how’s the admin part of your job going?
Bowen: We’re just now getting our head above water and trying to regroup on some of that stuff because that just wasn’t our focus. If somebody didn’t pay an invoice that was due in March, well who cares? We’re still telling them where to find PPE for the good of the community. I think a lot of consultants and educators did the same thing. There’s a reason all these webinars came out for free—for the good of the community and the industry. Now I think it’s easier to validate a state association membership because of what we have shown we can do and accomplish together.
Medtrade Monday: How relevant are face-to-face trade shows in 2020?
Bowen: For me, that’s the easiest question, because without a doubt, nothing beats a face-to-face meeting. Everything about it—the communication, the visual and audible lessons, and the education. The reasons people join associations and trade show communities are advocacy, communication, education, and networking. Education and networking excel in person. I miss going to these meetings. I enjoy getting to the meeting, seeing my people, taking pictures, and putting stuff all over social media. There’s no doubt that in-person is the best way to accomplish at least those two pieces—education and networking.
Medtrade Monday: How confident are you that your state meetings, as well as shows such as Medtrade (Nov. 2-4 in Atlanta) are going to happen?
Bowen: Right now, the need is to stay safe and respect the concerns of medical experts and the government restrictions. At the same time, we want to do what’s right for our members. Get back into life and be safe—whichever side you’re on, or you’re on both sides. We don’t want to be disrespectful and say, ‘Come hell or high water we’re going to have a meeting no matter what,’ because the health and safety of our members is too important. It needs to be an educated decision. There are no guarantees in this crazy pandemic. It could change at any minute.
Medtrade Monday: Beyond the scheduled events, what makes these meetings so valuable?
Bowen: Sometimes the best information is shared in the halls or after the sessions. Sometimes I ask, ‘What are you doing at the bar instead of being in the meeting?’ But bar conversation may be gold. I have to look at it a different way instead of just butts in seats all the time. It’s more than that. Suppliers come to these meetings and pay a lot of money to attend. They get a chance to interact, and it’s valuable. You can’t do that on a Zoom call.