Users First Alliance Shines the Spotlight on Mobility/Rehab Consumers

ORLANDO, Fla. ù In an effort to turn attention back to where they say it belongs, Permobil, The ROHO Group and TiLite came together at last week's International Seating Symposium (ISS) to launch Users First, an alliance with the motto "Push for More."

The three manufacturers of high-end rehab power wheelchairs and power seating systems, seat cushions and backs, and ultralightweight manual wheelchairs, respectively, announced the new alliance on March 8, the opening day of ISS. Users First will operate as a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), according to a press statement.

Users First's mission statement is "to improve the end-user's quality of life. By providing customers state-of-the-art, high-performance products and quality education, the Users First Alliance aims to encourage end-users, clinicians and providers to drive product selection based on client needs, and work together to ensure appropriate access to such equipment."

The ownership status of each participating manufacturer will not change. Rather, the manufacturers described Users First as "an alliance of rehabilitation companies who aim to produce products what will meet the demands and expectations of the end-user, all while maintaining a focus on quality and innovation."

At the heart of the need for Users First, say the participants, is concern that consumers are not having enough input when it comes to choosing what mobility and rehab equipment they use.

"We're doing this because so much of the conversation has been about reimbursement," TiLite Chairman/CEO David Lippes said at a March 8 breakfast meeting to launch the organization. "It's become so pervasive. We need to change that conversation. We want to bring the conversation back to product performance, long-term medical outcomes, things like that."

"Our mission," emphasized Permobil VP of Business Development Tom Rolick, "is to shift focus to consumers." Rolick acknowledged "a lot of change is going on in the industry," but added, "If we're going to move forward, we've got to make some changes... We've got to shift the priorities from funding, funding, funding, or lack thereof, over to what got us into this industry in the first place. And that's focusing on the consumer."

The three manufacturers ù who said they hoped other manufacturers would eventually join the alliance ù announced an aggressive plan to get the word out about Users First.

Said Tom Borcherding, executive VP of global sales for ROHO: "We're doing a joint presence here at ISS in terms of branding in the exhibit hall. We're doing a national advertising campaign in 2007. We are doing joint exhibitions at the Abilities (Expos) to hopefully impact consumer choice. We are doing a joint presence at Medtrade within the exhibit hall, and we'll have planned activities that the three companies share to get across this message as well."

Executives at all three of the charter member companies expressed concern that when cost is the main priority in choosing mobility or rehab equipment, consumers end up suffering.

"None of our companies sell high-volume, manufactured-by-subcontractors, lower-margin product," Lippes said. "That (kind of) product is designed for financial reasons. All of us are in this industry and find satisfaction and just plain fun by building products that we know, no matter where we go in the world, it's going to be well respected, and people are going to be turned on by it."

To drive that point home to consumers, Users First banners proclaim, "Since when does someone else get to decide what you deserve?" The new alliance will also be spreading the word using consumer promotional items such as pens, luggage tags and T-shirts all imprinted with the Users First logo -- the silhouette of a person with arms raised in triumph.

The organization is led by four working committees. The executive committee is composed of Borcherding, Rolick and Lippes. The marketing committee is made up of Josh Anderson (TiLite VP of marketing), Melissa Keim (ROHO VP of marketing) and Barry Steelman (Permobil marketing manager). Ann Eubank (Permobil), Darren Hammond (ROHO) and Tina Roesler (TiLite) make up the Training and Education Committee. The Legal and Regulatory Committee members are Darren Jernigan (Permobil), Dave McCausland (ROHO) and Lippes (TiLite). The alliance also premiered its Web site at ISS:

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