WASHINGTON - TV ads show smiling seniors enjoying an "active" lifestyle on a motorized scooter, taking in the sights at the Grand Canyon, fishing on a pier and high-fiving their grandchildren at a baseball game.
The commercials, which promise freedom and independence to people with limited mobility, have driven the nearly $1 billion U.S. market for power wheelchairs and scooters. But the spots by the industry's two leading companies, The Scooter Store and Hoveround, also have drawn scrutiny from critics who say they convince some seniors that they need a scooter when many don't.
Members of Congress say the ads lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending by Medicare, which is supposed to pay for scooters only as a medical necessity when seniors are unable to use a cane, walker or regular wheelchair. Government inspectors say up to 80 percent of the scooters and power wheelchairs Medicare buys go to people who don't meet the requirements.
Doctors say more than money is at stake: Seniors who use scooters unnecessarily can become sedentary, which can exacerbate obesity and other disorders.
"Patients have been brainwashed by The Scooter Store," says Dr. Barbara Messinger-Rapport, director of geriatric medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. "What they're implying is that you can use these scooters to leave the house, to socialize."
The scooter controversy underscores the influence TV ads can have on medical decisions. Like their peers in the drug industry, scooter companies say direct-to-consumer advertising educates patients about their medical options. But critics argue that the scooter spots are little more than sales pitches that cause patients to pressure doctors to prescribe unnecessary equipment.
The Scooter Store and Hoveround, which together make up about 70 percent of the U.S. market for scooters, spent more than $180 million on ads in 2011, up 20 percent from 2008, according to advertising tracker Kantar Media. Their ads often include language that the scooters can be paid for by Medicare or other insurance
Hoveround did not respond to a half-dozen requests for comment. The Scooter Store, the nation's biggest seller of scooters, said that most people who contact the company after seeing the ads do not ultimately get a scooter.