"I couldn't really get out and do anything before. Now I have a lot more mobility," said Tornabell, whose doctor recommended that he get the device.
But Dr. Stephen Peake, medical director for the insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield in Tennessee, says doctors can often be as uninformed about the appropriate role of scooters as patients.
"I talk to a lot of physicians about this subject ... and after our discussions, they don't understand that you can't get a power mobility device so mom can go to the park with the family," Peake said in testimony before the Senate Committee on Aging last year.
One reason for the confusion? Doctors say scooter companies are just as aggressive with health professionals as they are in marketing to their patients.
Dr. Jerome Epplin of Litchfield, Ill., who also testified before the Senate, estimates that only about one of every 10 patients who ask him for a scooter actually needs one. But he said that sales representatives from some scooter companies put pressure on him by accompanying patients to his office. The effect is coercive, he says.
"It can be intimidating," Epplin says. "I see it as an inappropriate attempt to influence my clinical judgment when I'm evaluating a patient."
Allegations of Medicare fraud within the industry go back nearly a decade.
In 2005, the U.S. Justice Department sued The Scooter Store, alleging that its advertising enticed seniors to obtain power scooters paid for by Medicare, and the company then sold patients more expensive scooters that they did not want or need. The Scooter Store settled that case in 2007 for $4 million.
As part of the settlement, The Scooter Store was operating under an agreement that made the company subject to periodic government reviews between 2007 and last year. In 2011, the latest review available, government auditors estimated that The Scooter Store received between $47 million and $88 million in improper payments for scooters.
The Scooter Store took no action to repay the money until February 2012, when the Health and Human Services' inspector general threatened to bar the company from doing business with Medicare, which accounts for about 75 percent of its revenue, according to its congressional testimony.
The company said the government's estimate was flawed and that it was willing to repay $19.5 million in overpayments. The company has paid about $5.7 million. The rest is scheduled for repayment by 2017.
Medicare said in a January letter that it accepted the fee based on The Scooter Store's own assessment of what it owed, but that the agreement "does not absolve The Scooter Store from any further liability."
In recent months, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other members of the Senate Aging Committee have pushed Medicare to recover the millions of dollars spent on unnecessary scooters each year. Those purchases totaled about $500 million in 2011, the latest year available, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general.
Medicare, which says that it does not have control over how companies market the scooters, launched a pilot program designed to reduce wasteful spending on scooters.
Under the program, government contractors in seven states review patients' medical documentation to make sure they need a wheelchair or scooter before approving payments for a device. The program is being tested in a small number of states — including Florida, California and New York — because the government must pay contractors extra to review additional paperwork.
The program has been criticized by The Scooter Store's executives, who say that contractors are too strict in their reviews, rejecting payments for power chairs that are genuinely needed.
The reduced payments are hurting the company, which was founded in 1991. The Scooter Store has spent nearly $1 million lobbying Congress over the last two years, almost exclusively focused on the Medicare review program. And the company laid off about 370 employees in the past year, blaming the reduced payments it's been getting from Medicare.