Scooter Wars

There’s a new scooter in town. Now “Spin” has joined “Bird” and “Lime-S” in providing the cool contingent of Columbus with a short-distance travel option that allows them to zip around town while striking chill poses that typically feature bored expressions.

The fact that a third scooter company is muscling in on the territory of two other competitors tells you that Columbus has a significant appetite for scooter travel. As a non-scooter rider, however, I wonder what the basis for the competition is. The scooters all look pretty much the same, so is it price? Or do scooter riders have the apps for all scooter options in their town and simply grab whatever happens to be nearby when they feel the itch to scoot — which would suggest there’s room for still more companies to come into the market until the sidewalks of Columbus are saturated with scooters.

As a pedestrian who has already gotten used to dodging scooters and walking around scooters coolly left wherever their diffident riders feel like it, I’m not exactly looking forward to that.

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Scooter Dodging

Urban Columbus has taken to rent-a-scooters like a duck takes to water. Every day you see dozens of people zipping down streets, in bikes lanes or on sidewalks, looking super cool because that’s how people on scooters inevitably look.

There’s just one problem: pedestrians. We poor downtown walkers have been reduced to the status of scooter dodgers, having to pick our way around scooters left willy-nilly on sidewalks, in front of business doorways, or wherever those ultra-cool scooters rider choose to abandon them. And because those sophisticated scooterites apparently can ride the scooters wherever they want, including sidewalks, we walkers have to be especially vigilant — because the scooter users are too busy being cool to pay much attention. Already I’ve had two close calls — one when a scooter rider zipped past at about 10 mph just as I was coming to a corner and we luckily missed a collision by inches, and the other when the rider turned a corner and I was able to dodge without a second to spare. In each case I got a breezy “sorry!” as the rider rocketed on his merry way.

I’m all for downtown Columbusites getting their coolness quotient up to the maximum level, and I do think scooters fill an urban transportation niche — which is why they’ve instantly become popular. But can the cool contingent at least take care in operating the scooters, and show some consideration for the rest of us in where they leave them?

Nothing New Under The Sun

The latest personal transportation initiative to hit Columbus is scooters.

Electric scooters, to be sure — but still . . . scooters.

A company called Bird has identified Columbus as a location for its rent-a-scooter program, and now you see the Bird scooters all over the place, like this duo that I found at the corner of Gay and Third on Sunday.  The Bird scooter program sounds a lot like the Cars2Go program that was launched in Columbus several years ago — and which was discontinued earlier this year.  Bird users tap an app that allows them to unlock a scooter for $1, and then they pay 15 cents a minute as they ride.  The scooters can travel up to 15 mph, can only be used during daylight hours, and are supposed to be ridden on the street or in bike lanes and not on the sidewalks.  (Speaking for pedestrians everywhere, I’m grateful for that last caveat.)  Based on an article in the Columbus Dispatch, it appears that Columbus and surrounding communities are trying to figure how how the Bird scooters fit into the current rules regulating transportation options and whether permits and other requirements should apply.

The scooters are supposed to target people needing “last mile” transportation, and I’ve seen a few people riding them around.  I wouldn’t use one, but if the Bird option gets more people out of their cars and using the bike lanes, that seems like a positive thing to me.

Mostly, though, I’m amazed that scooters — which date back to at least the ’30s in America — have reemerged as a transportation option.  What’s next?  Rentable pogo sticks?

 

Uncle Sam, The Scooter Sap

Over the weekend the Washington Post carried a terrific article about how fraudsters ripped off Medicare — and through Medicare, the American taxpayer — in the Great Scooter Scam.  It’s another troubling, cautionary tale that shows how good intentions can run awry, how fraudsters are always ready to pounce, and how our ponderous governmental apparatus is just not well-suited to ferreting out fraud.

The fraud scheme grew out of Medicare’s requirement that claims be paid promptly, and the vast scope of coverage that Medicare supplies.  With millions of claims being received, there was no way to check them out before making the required prompt processing decision.  So Medicare’s default approach was to pay claims first, investigate later.  The fraudsters learned this, and rubbed their hands with glee.  But fraudsters can’t perform surgery or other medical care, so how do they take advantage of that gaping vulnerability in the system?  Medical equipment was the answer . . . but the crooks then had to find just the right kind of equipment, where real money could be made.

Ultimately, they realized that scooters and motorized wheelchairs were perfect.  The need for them was plausible, and there was a huge gap between the actual cost of the devices and the inflated amount Medicare would pay.  The fraudsters created elaborate schemes that included “recruiters” who identified seniors to receive the scooters and bogus medical supply companies — and seniors who willingly participated because they thought there were getting a freebie, even if it was something that they didn’t need.  When Medicare changed the rules to require in-person doctor visits to try to stop the fraud, the crooks recruited doctors who were willing to participate in the fraud in exchange for a cut.

The result?  Perfectly able-bodied seniors with wheelchairs, still in their wrapping, gathering dust in their garages or serving as the perch for oversized teddy bears.  Seniors riffing on the Seinfeld episode and having scooter races in their neighborhoods.  And huge amounts of federal money lining the pockets of criminals.

The scope of the fraud is astonishing.  The Medicare system has paid billions for motorized wheelchairs, and they don’t even know how many of the purchases are legitimate.  One recent audit of paid bills showed that 80 percent were improper.  And even after the federal government became aware of the scooter scam, in 1998, it continued to pay billions in phony claims.  Since 1999, Medicare has paid $8.2 billion for 2.7 million motorized wheelchairs and scooters.  In 2003 alone, $964 million was spend on the devices.  These seem like huge numbers, but they are only a blip in the vast Medicare system — which is part of the reason why it took so long to meaningfully tackle the problem.

The Medicare system now says that it has effectively addressed the scooter scam, and the amounts spent on motorized wheelchairs fell to only $190 million in 2013.  Should we have confidence that all of that money — and all of the billions of dollars shelled out for other forms of medical equipment — is being spent in response to legitimate medical needs?  Not really.  The system is too large, oversight is minimal, and there are too many gaps where the fraudsters can take advantage.  And, perhaps most distressingly, there apparently are lots of “recruiters,” doctors, and seniors who apparently are all too willing to participate in a criminal scam so long as they get something out of it.

The Washington Post article about the Great Scooter Scam should be required reading for every Member of Congress who thinks the best way to solve a problem is to create a governmental program that pays out money to address it.

Now Comes Scooter Time

Kish and I are in our fifties, and in our daily mail we regularly receive grim reminders of our advancing age, our likely physical and mental infirmity, and our imminent demise.  First it was AARP mailers that came within days of our 50th birthdays, then it was brochures for retirement planning and funeral insurance.  This week, we received information from The SCOOTER Store.

That’s right — it is apparently time for us to consider retreating from the bipedal world and joining the ranks of scooter-bound seniors seen in the classic Seinfeld episode.  The mailing we received urges us to take a “FREE Personal Mobility Assessment” that includes eight questions like “Do you sometimes feel left out by not being able to get together with family and friends?” The cover letter promises to work with Medicare and health insurers and adds:  “What’s really amazing is that you may be able to get a power chair or scooter at little or no cost to you with Medicare and private insurance.”  Even better, if you send in the Personal Mobility Assessment you get a FREE Puzzles and Games booklet!

Does anyone below 50 even receive mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service anymore?   Most of our daily mail delivery is this kind of ageist claptrap.  Don’t they realize 50-year-olds use email?  And do they really think we 50-year-olds are going to be left trembling with excitement by the offer of a free Puzzles and Games booklet that could jazz up our humdrum existences?  It’s insulting.  What the heck — why not really play to senior stereotypes and offer a free DVD of the first season of Matlock and a Viagra sample if we send in the Personal Mobility Assessment and take that first, tentative step toward scooterdom?