Decades in the making, iBOT now covered by private insurance companies


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Oct 14, 2023

Decades in the making, iBOT now covered by private insurance companies

May 13—The iBOT Personal Mobility Device can do things most wheelchairs cannot —

May 13—The iBOT Personal Mobility Device can do things most wheelchairs cannot — like climb stairs and traverse rough outdoor terrain — but until now the cost has been inaccessible for most people because it was not covered by health insurance.

Manchester-based Mobius Mobility announced last week that customers can now be reimbursed up to 70% of the cost of the device depending on health care coverage. The company expects to expand the reach of the innovative device, which costs between $35,000 to $40,000.

Mobius worked for years to receive accreditation from Accreditation Commission for Healthcare.

"First, we had to figure out which insurance codes would apply to the iBOT," said CEO Lucas Merrow.

The iBOT has been approved for the insurance codes that apply to most power wheelchairs, according to the company.

One of the most unique features of the iBOT — invented by Dean Kamen in the 1990s — is being able to lift a person to eye level. A four-wheel mode keeps the seat level while going up and down slopes.

Mobius continued production on the iBOT in 2020, a decade after Johnson & Johnson stopped producing them in 2009. In 1994, Kamen partnered with the pharmaceutical giant, which spent millions on the development of earlier models of the device. He negotiated a deal to get the rights to continue the brand.

"They sold the rights back for $1, basically," Merrow said.

The latest generation of iBOT is lighter and has more battery power. The device requires a prescription as a Class 2 medical device, a classification that allows the seat and other functions to be customized, such the seat and left- or right-hand controls.

The power bases are produced at 540 N. Commercial St., but the seats are custom made by wheelchair seating companies.

Merrow said the wheelchair industry hasn't seen "meaningful innovation" in decades.

Uphill battle

Johnson & Johnson previously worked on insurance coverage by creating a "whole new reimbursement category for it because it is different and more expensive to build because it can do so much more than a wheelchair," Merrow said.

"But Medicare, first, and then private insurers, which tend to follow Medicare's lead, said all the things iBOT does are not medically necessary," Merrow said. "We don't agree with that."

As part of the accreditation, Mobius Mobility worked to get the iBOT tested under existing wheelchair reimbursements.

"We had to go to an outside lab and have the iBOT tested to confirm it met all those requirements," Merrow said.

Insurance companies will likely cover between 30% and 70% of the cost based on the provider, he said. The iBOT is mostly covered out-of-network.

"The iBOT is very configurable to each user, and the user's doctor and therapists need to justify what the user needs medically," Merrow said. "That will determine how much is covered."

Customized functions of the iBOT can be paid for out of pocket. The company offers financing through Digital Federal Credit Union and Service Credit Union.

The iBOT has transformed power wheelchairs, but insurance has historically lagged on approving technological advancements and "stifled innovations entering and succeeding in the marketplace," said Rory Cooper, founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh.

He said Medicare policy, which forms the basis for most insurance, is outdated and often conflicts with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"The iBOT is nearly 30-year old technology at this point, and there are other devices (including elevating seats functions) that are either not covered or inadequately covered. This has limited the ability of people to participate in U.S. society, and to live with less assistance," he wrote in an email to the Union Leader.

The company works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and many nonprofit veterans organizations to get the iBOT to disabled veterans.

Last year, Mike Moran of Londonderry received his own iBOT as part of a donation from Veterans Count, a program of Easterseals. He served almost 20 years in the U.S. Air Force.

"It is another great tool for me, especially for the outdoors," Moran said. "I'm able to go to different parts of my yard and on terrain a regular wheelchair won't go through."

He's glad more will be able to experience the same level of freedom and independence.

"It is going to open the doors for a lot of people that they understand it is out there and insurance will pay for it," Moran said.

The iBOT's balance mode lifting him up to eye level is key.

"It is rewarding and a lot easier," he said. "It saves your neck throughout the day. You don't realize it's a barrier until you are put in that situation."

Nonprofit support will continue to be needed to keep the device affordable for those who need it.

"Some people won't get coverage because the insurance company will just deny it," he said. "It is never going to cover 100%."

The money raised by nonprofits will now be able to assist more people.

Merrow said the company has been "growing nicely," but declined to reveal how many were produced in the past year. The company doubled production year-over-year without insurance claims.

The product has made its way to European countries, like Belgium, Germany and Netherlands.

"We are optimistic that it is going to be significant growth because (insurance payments) is going to make a substantial financial contribution to affordability," Merrow said.

Many consider the iBOT life-changing and Mobius continues to work on new developments, Merrow said.

The company now has 25 workers and is looking to hire more.

"We are very committed to Manchester and the local economy and making things in the United States," Merrow said.

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