Lum: Liquid oxygen dearth alert
October 29, 2014
When I decided to make a four-day foray to Disneyland, the very last thing I expected was that I wouldn't be able to get any liquid oxygen during my stay there.
To the layperson, it might seem that oxygen is oxygen, but to a pulmonary patient, the difference between liquid oxygen in lightweight containers and compressed oxygen in heavy metal canisters is huge — night and day in the oxygen world.
I've been on supplemental oxygen 24/7 for 15 years, and the portable equipment for liquid oxygen — which was just coming out when I went down — saved my job with its lightweight convenience, and possibly my life because I believe that I would have gone insane dragging around those unwieldy canisters in their clumsy oxygen carts.
During those past 15 years, whenever I would travel I'd just call my oxygen providers and the equipment would be waiting at my destination. I was aware that liquid oxygen might not be available if I went to the hinterlands, but apparently I never went that far afield because liquid was always there with no problem at all.
It has been a couple of years since I last traveled, so I had no idea that changes were afoot on the oxygen front. My first suspicion came when Aerocare, my current oxygen providers, reported that there was no liquid oxygen available in California.
"Well, we'll just see about that," I thought and ran for the Internet. As I expected, there were all kinds of liquid-oxygen places listed, but when I began calling them, it turned out that they were wholesalers or industrial providers.
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Lincare is a national oxygen provider with local service and has been buying up smaller companies. I don't know how close they are to having a corner on the market, but I was shocked to hear from Aerocare that while Lincare still does (though they are phasing it out) provide liquid oxygen, it was only available to their own patients.
I was even more shocked when I learned that even if I switched to Lincare here in the valley, they wouldn't sell or supply me with liquid oxygen from their Anaheim office. "You mean you have it but I can't get it?" "That's right. Sorry."
Sorry indeed. If patients can't get liquid when traveling — when they need it most — that's a real catastrophe for thousands of oxygen patients.
So it was that Hilary and I ended up at the expensive hotel we had already paid for, with eight small (B tanks) oxygen canisters and five big ones (E tanks). Instead of a light Helios liquid portable that lasts for eight hours on 2 liters per minute, I carried three of the little canisters banging around in the basket of my rented electric scooter that lasted, in total, four hours on 1.5 liters per minute. If I had been in Aspen on my usual 4 liters per minute, the supply would have barely gotten me through Space Mountain.
When I got home, a new issue of The Pulmonary Papers — an oxygen magazine — had come in the mail with an article verifying what I had discovered. They blamed Medicare cuts in payments to providers and gave a couple of phone numbers (1-800-404-8702 Medicare complaints; 1-866-316-2673 COPD line) to call.
Liquid oxygen is already on its way out, and the first to go are travelers and new patients who won't know the difference. Our only hope is the stream of baby boomers who will add their loud voices.
A huge consideration is that the oxygen providers themselves will be tickled pink to get rid of liquid oxygen and are unlikely to as patient advocates in this matter.
It wasn't long ago that being "on oxygen" meant your provider would deliver a large concentrator (a machine that works on electricity and makes oxygen out of thin air) and a pile of canisters of varying sizes and wouldn't need to see you again until you ran out of the compressed air tanks.
With liquid, they have to come by every week or two to refill your mother liquid tanks, like filling the gas tank of your car. They are, after all, profit-making operations and this is the perfect excuse to rid themselves of their greatest financial sinkhole. Medicare reimbursement goes down? Great! So will the supply go down, if not out.
Su Lum is a longtime local who is worried. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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