WATERLOO, Iowa — The kick-off may be a hog roast and fireworks, but don’t be fooled — there’s a lot more going on at VGM Group’s Heartland Conference, June 7-10, and most of it is all about helping home medical equipment providers do business better.

The member services group’s ninth annual conference, which is expected to draw about 650 VGM members to the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center in Waterloo, Iowa, will feature 90 educational sessions and 87 speakers, some 75 exhibitor booths and the opportunity to earn up to 24 continuing education units. In addition, attendees can grab lunch and participate in one of seven small-group discussions.

“This is a great way [for providers] to check up and make sure they are up to speed on the legislative issues and the new products that are out there and see if they are up to date in running their businesses,” said Jim Phillips, VGM Group COO. “They can get ideas and network with each other so they can thrive and survive.”

Indeed, surviving is likely uppermost on most providers’ minds these days. This year is a pivotal one for the HME sector, with CMS expected to release bid prices sometime this month for Round 1 of competitive bidding. If the program is not derailed by H.R. 3790, as much as 90 percent of the companies in the competitive bidding areas stand to lose their Medicare business, industry advocates predict.

So VGM has developed this year’s conference with an eye to offering providers options for wresting control of their businesses away from Medicare and answering the questions, “How can I diversify my business? How can I change my business to change where my cash comes from?”

For example, in addition to several sessions on competitive bidding (including “Do I Want This Competitive Bidding Contract?”), attendees can learn the ins-and-outs of establishing sleep and wellness centers and how to build a million-dollar retail business.

The biggest, most eye-catching option put forth at Heartland, however, will likely be a house.

VGM’s newest division, Accessible Home Improvement of America, is partnering with Rooff Development (owned by former Waterloo mayor John Rooff) and All American Homes of Dyersville to build an all-accessible home.

“We set it up right downtown next to the convention center, so it is attracting a lot of attention already,” said Phillips.

Heartland Home

The 1,500-square foot Heartland Home for Independent Living, which will open with a ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, will be fully furnished with the newest accessibility products from AHIA vendors. Classes on home modifications and accessibility issues will be held in the house, and Heartland attendees will even have an opportunity for hands-on building: Several Heartland classes will install the bathroom system and participants will earn certification for their work.

The idea, Phillips said, is to demonstrate to providers how they can build their businesses through accessible housing.

That works for Premier Home Care of Louisville, Ky., said Wayne Knewasser, vice president of public relations and government affairs. Premier is sending about a half-dozen employees to Heartland, he said.

“Typically, we go out there for the education seminars and the networking with people all around the country. It’s always good to talk to those who are not direct competitors to find out what works, what doesn’t work,” Knewasser said.

This year, however, there’s another goal. “We’re interested in looking more at the retail market that is not tied to Medicare, Medicaid and insurers — bathroom modification stuff, stair glides, mobility products,” Knewasser said, adding that Premier is looking into home modifications.

The impetus for that is the onslaught of reimbursement cuts and the threat of competitive bidding.

“We’re going to be in Round 2 in Louisville,” Knewasser said, noting that the closest Round 1 CBA is Cincinnati. “So obviously we are very anxious to see what comes out of Round 1.” He holds no illusions that the bid prices will be sustainable or that many, if any, local providers will win bids.

Phillips said Mark Higley, vice president of development for VGM, will present a session on how the bidding might look. In addition, he said, the Heartland conference will be a forum for drumming up more support for H.R. 3790, not only in the form of member activism but also through advocacy groups.

This year Heartland will have an advocacy booth staffed by members of the Users First Alliance, a non-profit organization focusing on empowering wheelchair users, clinicians and providers with education and resources. Guests will include Samantha Edwards, Ms. Wheelchair Iowa 2010, and Angie Plager, Ms. Wheelchair Iowa 2009 and president of the Spinal Cord Association of Iowa.

“We’re working to marry [advocacy groups] to the industry, educate them as to what we do and how they and their constituents will be affected if competitive bidding goes through,” Phillips said.

But it won’t all be work. Heartland participants will have plenty of time for fun at an opening-day golf tournament, followed by the traditional hog roast and fireworks. There will be a grand opening reception at the exhibit hall on Tuesday, a gala dinner dance on Wednesday, and VGM CEO Van Miller will host a “Vantastic House Party” on Thursday.

The tone for the conference, however, will likely be set by keynote speaker Bill Klein, star with his wife, Houston neonatologist Jen Arnold, of The Learning Channel’s “The Little Couple.”

Klein, the cofounder and COO of Emerge Sales, a leading provider of sales-related services supporting such companies as GE Healthcare, Covidien, McKesson and others, is less than four feet tall. In his address “Think Big,” he will share his personal story of triumphs and challenges as a little person in an average-sized world.

“He’s plowed through adversity and it hasn’t stopped him. His message will be, ‘Don’t let it stop you,'” said Phillips.