“We got it through the FDA in four years, only to have CMS take the position that it should be reimbursed the same as a regular wheelchair,” he told a packed crowd of admirers at Boston University. “That’s like saying,’If you give a kid a computer in school, it’s the same as a pencil and paper,’ so you’ll reimburse the school 79 cents.”
The problem with agencies such as CMS, he added, is that “you have 19th century people looking at 21st century technology.”
Kamen is president of DEKA Research & Development Corp. of Manchester, N.H., which invented the stair-climbing, automated iBOT more than five years ago in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Independence Technology LLC.
Despite its advanced technology, the iBOT was shelved earlier this spring by J&J, in part because of CMS ruling that the product was little more than a traditional power-operated wheelchair and does not “serve a medical purpose.”
The iBOT, which carried price tag in excess of $25,000, was only eligible for about $6,000 in reimbursement coverage from CMS.
Kamen, delivering a keynote address in his trademark short-sleeved denim shirt and jeans at the XSite 2009 conference hosted by high-tech blog Xconomy.com, said innovation faces “insidious” foes determined to halt progress.
“Innovation is limited by the fact that people don’t like change,” Kamen said, in a rousing speech that lasted more than an hour and ended to a standing ovation (and at least one call of “Dean for president”).
The strong could signal another battle with the agency Kamen might face over his DEKA arm, a robotic prosthetic he developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that’s far more advanced than any prosthetic on the market. If the arm ever makes it to market, it’s likely to face a similar pricing and reimbursement challenge.
Kamen, who started his career inventing products including insulin pumps and portable dialysis machines that were bought by companies like Medtronic and Baxter, said the medical industry should start looking to industries such as aerospace to solve design problems in innovative products.
“If you continue looking inside your own industry, you’re only destined to make incremental improvements,” he noted. “If you go outside your industry, they might fail, but they also might solve some problems.”
Kaman called on the innovators in attendance to get out into the community and work with young people. He devoted a considerable portion of the speech to his FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotic design competition for elementary, middle and high school students.
“I spent two hours in traffic coming here, so you’re going to hear about FIRST,” he joked, drawing big laughs when he said that he would have flown his helicopter down from Manchester but “people in this city are afraid of technology.”