Medicare has been making health care more affordable for older Americans since the 1960s. But there's a lot that Medicare won't pay for, including deductibles, dental care, vision care, and sometimes what's called durable medical equipment.
"Things like hospital beds and wheelchairs are very expensive and not always covered by health insurance," says Kyle Stewart, senior director of donated goods retail with Goodwill Industries International.
Medicare rules say the equipment must be deemed medically necessary, and your doctor must prescribe them. The program won't pay for the items if they primarily make your life more comfortable.
If you’re stuck in a bureaucratic gray zone and need medical equipment or supplies, then don’t fret! Here are four ways you can get what you need, and at a low cost.
1. Buy refurbished medical equipment
One of the best places to find low-cost medical equipment is at Goodwill. Goodwill sells used or new wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, canes, motorized scooters, hospital beds and much more.
“We give new life to gently-used medical equipment and unopened supplies at tremendous cost savings for those who need them,” says Mark B. Boyd, president and CEO of Goodwill of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia.
He adds: "We ensure that every item is sanitized and meets all Centers for Disease Control safety requirements."
Be sure to call ahead and ask what's available. Your local Goodwill may even loan out health equipment if you'll be needing a device just temporarily, or if you want to test out a product before you buy.
2. Buy medical equipment online
Sure, you can buy anything online, often at great savings. Today there are many online medical equipment retailers that claim to offer discounts.
But be careful: Some e-tailers mark up prices and then put their equipment "on sale." It looks like you’re getting a deal, but you’re actually paying more than if you’d bought new from the manufacturer.
Mobility scooters seem to be particularly affected by this trend.
The best sources for new, discounted equipment will price-match for you, so make sure to check prices against Amazon’s and ask for the same deal.
3. Buy medical supplies online
The online medical supply business has boomed in recent years, and increasing competition among retailers has resulted in some great savings for customers.
Look around and you might find significant savings — up to 50% — on essential-care supplies including skincare and bathing products, diabetic test strips and socks, oxygen masks and tubes, and more.
Real discounts also are possible on comfort and safety products like lumbar rolls, hot/cold pain-reducing pads, and high-quality suction cup shower handles.
The trick is to comparison-shop. Don’t assume the cost will be lower on a particular site — the savings are impossible to predict! Always double-check any price against Amazon's for the same item.
4. Turn to state assistance programs
In most states, you'll find assistance programs run by nonprofit organizations and foundations that provide free long-term loans of medical equipment.
Some organizations focus on helping people with specific diagnoses or disabilities, such as the ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Associations and various lost-limb organizations. These national groups usually offer loans through local chapters.
Local nonprofits have participation requirements, but if you meet them you can get free or low-cost refurbished medical equipment.