Byline: ERIKA TORRES
Working in the health care field, Jim Filichia often came across people in a tough predicament: They needed to find a vehicle that was easy to access in a wheelchair.
After years of watching, Filichia decided to do something. In 1983, he opened Southern Medical Services. The company filled a niche in Northeast Florida, building or assembling ramps, wheelchair lifts, and elevators - all of the things that would help handicapped people gain more independence. It started a side venture; he already ran two other companies, both in different arenas.
As the market changed and bigger medical companies came into Jacksonville, Filichia faced a dilemma.
"There were not enough hours in the day to run three companies effectively," he said.
So in 1990 he sold one, Jacksonville River Taxi, to Bass Marine, and offloaded Southern Medical Services to Pneumotron, a health care subcontracting company based in Memphis.
But soon after, Medicaid laws changed, making it harder for subcontractors to get reimbursed. With costs rising and reimbursements slow and dwindling, Pneumotron went bankrupt and the company that Filichia built died with it.
But the need for disabled access didn't die.
Builder Sherman "West" Westmoreland, one of Filichia's first clients, and now his business partner, regularly received phone calls from people who needed their vehicles modified. Westmoreland, 49, has his own success story. In a wheelchair since he was 27 years old, he launched what is now a successful local construction company, Jaguar Builders and a retrofitting company, Handicapped Accessibility Consultants and Builders.
Filichia joined Westmoreland in 1996, and Accessibility Specialists Inc. - a company much like the one Filichia owned 16 years before - was born.
"We're filling a need," Filichia said, who's been managing the company since 1998. "You can go to Jacksonville and find a Walgreen's or a CVS on every corner, but... ask where to find someone who supplies wheelchair lifts and people are unaware where to go."
Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance companies will provide wheelchairs to those who need them. But they rarely provide the things that will help people move or get in wheelchairs easily.
Such accessories and ramps, while vital to maintaining a normal life, don't come cheap.
"The need for this kind of stuff is up there," Filichia said, "but not everybody can afford it. …