From: Home Care Magazine

WATERLOO, Iowa — For Lisa Ziehl, going to VGM’s annual Heartland Conference is kind of like going home. She meets old friends, has a great time and promises to come back next year.

She always takes something home, too.

“You always come back with some tangible things you can put into play,” said the operations manager for Rice Home Medical in Wilmer, Minn. “There is always that ‘aha’ moment that you have when you’re down there when you think, ‘This could work’ or ‘We could do this.'”

So for the fourth year, Ziehl is going back to Heartland, one of seven Rice Home Medical employees who will be attending the conference, which starts today and continues through Thursday in Waterloo, Iowa, VGM Group headquarters.

There could be more than one “aha” moment for Ziehl and the other 1,000 expected participants, since the 10th annual event will feature 104 educational sessions, 91 speakers, up to 23 hours of credit from seven continuing education entities and 74 exhibitors, all designed to help home medical equipment providers build better businesses.

The conference includes nine course tracks this year: billing/reimbursement, rehab/accessibility, regulatory/advocacy, competitive bidding/legislative, products/technology, respiratory/sleep, wound care, executive/business operations and sales and marketing. In addition, there will be small group discussion sessions on such topics as audits, accountable care organizations and best intake practices, as well as retail business.

Ziehl has set her sights on a few topics, she said.

“They’ve just added wound care and bariatrics. I am kind of excited about that,” she said. While Rice already does wound care, “we just want to see if there are things that we are missing or could be doing better,” Ziehl said.

She’s also keen on checking out the business operations track and hearing the speakers. It’s a hallmark of Heartland conferences that participants can get one-on-one time with the presenters, Ziehl said, and she is eager to take advantage of that and the numerous networking opportunities.

That’s one of the selling points for Louisville, Ky.-based Premier Home Care, said Wayne Knewasser, vice president of public relations and government affairs.

“Premier is sending [eight] people to Heartland this year,” he said, adding that the company values both the education and the friendships formed from previous years. Knewasser said he will concentrate on the competitive bidding and sales tracks, but “I may dabble a bit in the wound care and retail sales areas, as well.”

For Chuck Vetsch, CEO of Keller’s Medical Supply in Yakima, Wash., one of the key drawing cards is the rehab/accessibility track.

“We’re hoping to move more into the home modifications,” he said, noting that it is largely a cash business and at this point in the embattled HME industry, that’s a big plus.

Vetsch said last year’s conference with its emphasis on accessible homes helped cement his interest in the growing sector. He took the training and got his accreditation through VGM’s Accessible Home Improvement of America division. Within the last year, his company has installed several ramp systems and some bathrooms, and he has bids out for jobs on new construction projects, he said.

“We’ve seen that it has given us [an advantage] not only to be able to offer the home modification but the rest of the equipment on top of it,” he said.

VGM is continuing the emphasis this year with an Accessible Living Pavilion, AHIA vendor training and an all-accessible Care Cottage. AHIA partnered with Nationwide Custom Homes to bring the cottage, which was customized for Angie Plager, a former Ms. Wheelchair Iowa and president of the Iowa Spinal Cord Injury Association, to the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center grounds. Once the conference concludes, the home will be moved to Plager’s family property in Cambridge, Iowa.

The cottage concept, developed by Nationwide Homes, allows the structure to be attached to an existing home or placed as a separate dwelling on a caregiver’s property.

Vetsch, an ATP, said that in addition to the home modification track, he is also interested in hearing the speakers — the keynote speech will be given by Matthew Eversmann, a hero of the Battle of Mogadishu featured in the movie “Black Hawk Down” — and in getting the latest updates on competitive bidding.

“I’m always trying to see what’s the next step. Luckily, we are outside of a competitive bidding area, but it’s going to affect us,” Vetsch said. When CMS adopts the competitive bid prices for all providers, he said, “We’re going to take a hit.”

In addition to the educational seminars, Heartland will also feature its traditional hog roast, fireworks and 400 dozen cookies homemade by VGM staff members and distributed to attendees in their registration packets. A golf tournament opens the event, vendors will in the spotlight at a reception tomorrow night, and on Wednesday evening, the group will attend the annual Heartland Gala.

It’s enough to make Knewasser pledge to come back next year.

“Will we go back next year? You bet we will,” he said. “It’s already in our 2012 budget.”