Since launching in 2012, DME Exchange of Dallas has supplied nearly 3,000 pieces of donated durable medical equipment to nearly 2,000 clients. 

Nov. 14, 2016

Betty Hersey remembers watching the woman walk through a pouring rain from the bus stop in Northeast Dallas. Her steps were labored. It was clear she was in pain.

DME ExchangeWhen she got to the door of the DME Exchange of Dallas, the woman gratefully sat for a rest, and then received the refurbished walker that had been set aside for her. Hersey also helped blot the woman’s coat with paper towels, the only thing available. She invited her client to stay awhile, get out of the rain, but the middle-aged woman just sighed happily and said the rain was no problem. Her problem had just been solved. 

“God bless you,” she said, as she maneuvered the walking frame across the puddles. The rain was still heavy, but her steps were lighter.

“It was like we’d given her life back to her,” said Hersey, the executive director of the DME Exchange of Dallas.

Filling an insurance gap

This story is repeated daily at the DME Exchange, with different clients and equipment, on sunny days and rainy ones. The traffic to claim free, refurbished and repaired second-hand wheelchairs, walkers, hospital beds and other medical equipment is steady.

The reasons are not hard to understand. Dallas County, says Hersey, leads the state in the number of people without health insurance; and Texas continues to lead the nation in both the percentage and sheer number of uninsured. In 2015, 4.6 million Texans lacked health insurance, a smaller number than in recent years because Obamacare now subsidizes some families, but still the largest uninsured population in any U.S. state.

Dallas County, says Hersey, leads the state in the number of people without health insurance; and Texas continues to lead the nation in both the percentage and sheer number of uninsured.

DME ExchangeThese nearly 5 million Texans remain uncovered because Texas Gov. Rick Abbott and other state leaders chose not to take federal money to expand Medicaid, which covers the poor and disabled who aren’t old enough for Medicare and cannot afford private health insurance (even under the Affordable Care Act).

So the poorest Texans rely in large part on charitable healthcare. In Dallas County, many go to Parkland Hospital, which offers special programs. They receive healthcare, but oddly, when it comes to many types of medical equipment, they are often left to scrounge. The charity programs do not cover mobility devices and other durable medical goods.

The DME in DME Exchange stands for durable medical equipment, a category of goods defined by Medicare. It includes mobility equipment – canes and wheelchairs, transfer benches, hospital beds and patient lifts – and other hardware, including respiratory supplies, though the DME Exchange does not yet offer the latter.

Without coverage, many people, especially those already financially drained by medical issues and often unable to work, cannot afford to buy these items.

Even a rollator, a rolling walker that costs between $50 and $200 new, can be out of reach, said Hersey of DME Exchange.    

“The people we serve don’t have many resources,” Hersey says, speaking in between constant interruptions as the phone rings at the Exchange’s humble office at 12015 Shiloh Road.  “These people have nothing. They can’t pay to go to CVS or Walmart to pay even $20 or $40 for a cane. They don’t have that money. They are living so close to the edge. They certainly cannot afford a wheelchair.”

It’s hard to imagine, but in many cases, clients have received the health interventions they need, through the special programs at Parkland and other hospitals, but when they get ready to go home, they cannot get the DME products that will enable their transition, she explained.

“The people we serve don’t have many resources,” Hersey says. "They can’t pay to go to CVS or Walmart to pay even $20 or $40 for a cane. They certainly cannot afford a wheelchair.”

Often, even people covered by Medicaid and Medicare, cannot get equipment because of strict rules governing how often one can receive a walker or wheelchair: Only every five years. That means that a recovering person who already has a wheelchair, probably will have trouble getting a walker, and vice-versa.   

The coverage gaps can even keep some patients sitting in the hospital, trying to figure out how to get what they need to go home, Hersey said.

In other cases, people with long-term disabilities may stuck at home, unable to move around, because they do not know where to find the proper equipment and have no health coverage at all. 

She recalls one man who left DME with a wheelchair that he said would finally allow him to help with household chores. His young daughter rode on his lap, thrilled for her father, who’d been confined to chairs and beds for two full years.

Brett Reeves, a Dallas man who suffers from advanced diabetes, said the wheelchair, walker and cane he received from DME Exchange, has been a godsend because it was good quality and came without a payment attached. The walker supports his six-foot frame and came with a seat that he needs for rests when out walking.

“I really do appreciate what they’ve done,” said Reeves, who once drove a truck but has had toe amputations and can no longer work. “I’m grateful for this.”

Nearly 3,000 pieces of equipment 

DME Exchange of Dallas opened in October 2012. A project envisioned by Dallas Area Interfaith, it is supported by churches and other donors. As of mid-September 2016, the nonprofit (a 501c3) has given out 2,700 pieces of equipment to more than 1,850 patients. Each year the numbers grow bigger, and yet, the group has served just a fraction of what Hersey estimates to be 25,000 to 50,000 Dallas County residents who need durable medical goods.

Clients find the nonprofit through social workers, nurses and therapists at Parkland, other hospitals and medical facilities, and also through churches where Hersey and DME volunteers spread the word. Several of the city’s biggest churches and synagogues have made appeals for equipment and have held collection events. The Salvation Army and other groups also send or refer DME donations to the Exchange.

There’s no shortage of people who want to help. Still, most medical equipment of the type the DME Exchange needs, seems to sit in closets or garages, Hersey sighs. In one case, Hersey heard about 25 discarded wheelchairs that an agency had sent to the landfill. That makes her shudder, and it doesn't have to happen that way.   

Recycling gently used medical equipment is an earth-friendly solution as well as a people friendly one.

A power chair might only need new batteries to gain several years more life. A retired manual wheelchair just needs to find a right-sized owner.

DME ExchangeA bed lift or hospital bed, sanitized and with screws tightened, can help multiple patients over many years, and Hersey says some beds have been re-donated back to the DME more than once.

Here’s where the Exchange proves its value. The DME’s technician, Rigo Rodriguez, fixes and repairs equipment to make sure it is safe, clean and in sound working order. Then patient coordinator, Sharla Austin, helps match the restored hardware with the right people.

Historically, poor people have found wheelchairs and crutches at garage sales and pawn shops, but that can lead to them using an ill-fitting or even damaging device, said Laura Gures, a care coordinator at Parkland Hospital who helps in the orthopedic department. 

A wheelchair that’s too large can wear a person out; one that’s too small can cause sores leading to infections, Hersey elaborated. 

Historically, poor people have found wheelchairs and crutches at garage sales and pawn shops, but that can lead to them using an ill-fitting or even damaging device.

“Then they’ve got more problems than they started with.”

Having an exchange “ensures that the right person gets the right equipment at the right time,” said Gures, who often refers people who’ve had hip or knee replacements. 

DME ExchangeDME Exchange deems clients eligible if they a doctor’s statement of need and can show they make no more than 200 percent of the poverty line. They may be temporarily or permanently disabled, American citizens or not.

The service has grown every year as more people hear about it, but it continues to serve only Dallas County because its funding is limited. Hersey says she’d like to see the Exchange expand to Collin, Denton and Tarrant counties.
Its needs, like those of its clients, are great:

It has a waiting list of people who have applied for wheelchairs, rollators, shower benches and bariatric equipment. 

It could use a new van that doesn’t have 192,000 miles on it. 

And Hersey would very much like to buy a small AC and a heating unit to help keep the DME’s technician, Rodriguez, a little more comfortable as he works his refurbishing magic in the DME warehouse.

“That’s what we need. We’re only four years old. We’re still building our donor base; we’re still building awareness. We’re still building volunteers.”

To donate medical equipment or receive assistance, contact DME Exchange of Dallas.

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