Monday, April 30, 2007

New limbs for new lives

QUESTION: How are prosthetic limbs made?

ANSWER: First, a prosthetist fits the amputee’s limb with a compression garment to reduce the swelling that occurs after surgery. Next, the prosthetist takes an impression of the limb with plaster of Paris, fiberglass or, most commonly, a 3D digital scanner. Using the positive impression of the limb, the prosthetist designs a clear test socket and asks the patient to walk on it to test the fit. After making any adjustments, the prosthetist makes the prosthesis from a carbon graphite composite material. Depending on the patient’s needs and desires, the prosthetist may then cover the prosthesis with foam in the shape of the patient’s leg and lastly, a silicone covering that matches the patient’s skin tone. Most people need to replace their prosthetic limbs every two to five years because of wear and tear and changes in body shape.

Q: How much do prosthetic limbs cost?

A: The cost varies greatly, depending on the patient’s needs. A below-knee prosthesis can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000, largely depending on the design of the foot. An above-knee prosthesis can cost $15,000-$20,000. A prosthetic leg built with a computerized knee can cost $40,000-$65,000. Designed for active patients, computerized legs anticipate what the wearer is doing and accommodate every change by using microprocessors to control the knee’s hydraulic function 50 times a second.

Q: Does insurance cover the cost of prosthetic devices?

A: Medicare usually covers 80 percent of the cost of a prosthetic device. Coverage by insurance companies varies; many place limits on their coverage. Several states have passed or are considering prosthetic parity laws that would require insurers to provide better coverage for people who need prosthetic devices. The Ohio Orthotics and Prosthetics Association plans to introduce such a bill in the Ohio state legislature this year, and the Amputee Coalition of America is working with a small set of activists to introduce a prosthetic coverage bill in Kentucky.

Sources: Pat Flaherty and Steve Roller, certified licensed prosthetists at the Brace Shop in Mount Auburn; Enquirer research

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