The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill July 15 that would expand Medicare coverage of speech-generating devices, clearing the way for President Obama’s signature.
Since 2001, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has covered the cost of speech-generating devices for people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other speech-related disabilities. However, it does not provide coverage for certain upgrades, such as those allowing the devices to be used for text messages, emails and videos.
Much to the shock of disability advocates, the CMS announced in April 2014 that Medicare beneficiaries would have to undergo a 13-month rental period with the devices before installing the upgrades, later adding that it would no longer provide coverage for devices even capable of the upgrades.
In response to nearly 3,000 public comments opposing the policy, the CMS reversed course in May, announcing it would begin covering text messages, emails and other written communications.
The Steve Gleason Act of 2015, named after the former NFL star diagnosed in 2011 with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, will expand coverage a step farther.
First, the bill will eliminate the 13-month rental period. Second, it clarifies that the CMS will cover eye-tracking technology, which allows people to choose letters and words by moving their eyes over the screen.
“We saw it happen far too many times. People who wished to live productively, denied access to the one tool that could liberate them,” Gleason said in a news release. “People in hospice, who had their (speech generating devices) seized, so their last words to their loved ones were mere silence.
“Thankfully, legislative leaders like Senator David Vitter, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Congressman Erik Paulsen, Congressman Steve Scalise, and many others, saw this tragedy and they intervened. These leaders stepped up on behalf of those who couldn’t take action themselves.”
The bill, introduced in March, passed the Senate by a voice vote in April.
Gleason stood out as a safety and and special teams star with the Washington State University Cougars and for eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
He is best known for the blocked punt he made in fall 2006 in the Saints’ first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, which is memorialized in a statue outside the stadium.
Photo of Stephen Hawking, who uses a speech generating device to communicate, by NASA/Paul Alers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.