A leading breast pump manufacturer is quietly phasing out a low-end breast pump sold through insurance carriers after complaints surfaced about its effectiveness.
Medela, the largest breast pump maker in the U.S, manufactured a special pump (model 57038 or MY57038) for sale through insurance companies that doesn’t pump as much milk as the company’s retail pumps do, according to an investigation by Baby Bargains.
Even though the pump will no longer be made after 2015, there could be hundreds if not thousands of these pumps still on the shelves. The pump is still for sale on Amazon and online via insurance suppliers.
Concerns about the pump surfaced last month in an article in Bloomberg Business: “Some lactation consultants says Medela’s insurance-covered pumps don’t yield as much milk as more expensive retail versions,” the article said.
“After her son was born, Philadelphia attorney Leah Katz attended a lactation group meeting for help expressing milk. ‘When I complained that I wasn’t getting much, the first question everyone asked was whether I was using the insurance pump, because it wasn’t as effective,’ she says. Katz wound up paying $360 out of pocket for a Medela to use at home and an additional $80 a month to rent a hospital-grade version for the office, to get through five pumping sessions each day and another in the middle of the night.”
Medela marketing chief Susan Rappin told Bloomberg the motors in pumps Medela makes for insurers are “identical to those in its retail models, though some other components may be different.”
Medela has made similar to statements to Baby Bargains, telling us the pumps sold through insurance carriers are the same as retail pumps but lack some additional accessories.
However, the Medela Personal Double Pump (57038), which has been widely distributed to insurance carriers, clearly uses a different motor. The pump lacks the power and “2-phase Expression Technology” used for many years in the company’s retail pumps.
The 57038 pump isn’t listed among Medela’s insurance pumps online, but a chart elsewhere on the site lists the model with other insurance pumps. The chart indicates the 57038 is Medela’s entry-level pump and lacks the 2-phase Expression Technology feature.
According to Medela’s own promotional literature, the 2-Phase feature produces 18% more milk than standard pumps like the 57038.
Baby Bargains purchased a 57038 pump from a medical equipment supplier and contacted a certified lactation consultant to measure the pump’s power. Using a Medela Vacuum Gauge (see right), the 57038 pump’s suction measured just 225 mmHg, on the low end of the acceptable readings for breast pumps. (The desired range is 220-275 mmHg, depending on the altitude of the user). By comparison, a Medela Pump N Style retail pump expresses milk at a 240-250 mmHg rate.
In a statement to Baby Bargains, Medela said the 57038 pump “represents a small percentage of all Medela personal use double electric pumps sold.” Medela also said the pump in question is “in process of being phased out at the end of this year.”
Medela defended the pump’s overall quality: “Both single phase and 2-Phase Expression Technology offer mom a quality experience, however Medela’s product portfolio is moving toward 2-Phase Expression Technology.”
Obamacare pressures pump makers to lower prices, but did they lower quality?
The Affordable Care Act reshuffled the way breast pumps are sold in the U.S. Prior to the law, most breast pumps were sold via retail outlets or to hospitals, who rented out pumps to new moms. Medela has dominated both markets in recent years, capturing as much as 80% of the hospital pump market.
The ACA mandated breast pumps as a benefit of health insurance policies. Insurance carriers now distribute breast pumps to policy holders through durable medical equipment providers as well as a handful of large retailers. After the law set maximum prices for breast pumps, manufacturers felt pressure to lower pump prices.
“After the ACA went into effect in 2013, Medela increased production of less expensive pumps that had been developed for women receiving US government aid,” Bloomberg reported.
In fact, the Medela pump in question, the 57038 is listed on a web page on Medela’s site titled “wic-ma-pumps-3”. WIC stands for Woman, Infants and Children, part of a federal program that grants money to states for “supplemental foods, heath care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women.”
Breast pump benefits varies by policy and provider—most offer a choice of pumps, but some parents report that the only pump that qualified for their plan was the Medela 57038.
According to posts to online parenting communities, Medela suppliers allegedly misinformed some parents that this pump was the same as the retail Pump In Style. In one posting on BabyCenter from 2013, a parent said “I asked (the rep) if this model (57038) was the (Medela Pump) In Style or Freestyle and she said it was the (Medela Pump) In Style.”
Another mom chimed in: “That’s what I received as well. It’s not the same as the PIS, no let down feature. Mine didn’t seem to have a strong enough suction.” In a June 2014 post, another mom complains about the 57038: “I thought it was very aggressive and makes my nipples throb, I can’t even use it and my baby is 5 months old; even on the lowest setting it still hurts.”
On another parenting message board on WhatToExpect.com, a poster complained the 57038 pump was “less efficient than my Medela mini electric.” Another posted: “I have it and I hate it.”
“It took more than 30 minutes to get just 2 ounces (of milk),” said another poster in February 2015.
Reviews of the Medela 57038 on Amazon have been critical, with a 2.6 rating out of five stars. One 1-star review ripped the pump for being low quality:
“This is just an awful product. I have another Medela model that quit working, and I was overnighted this one in error. Compared to the other Medela pumps, this one is loud, cheaply made, and the tubing does not stay in its intended place allowing for adequate suction. It does not have the let down feature that the other Medela models have. This is only a Medela product in name, certainly not quality!”
Another Amazon reviewer said the pump’s reputation apparently proceeds it: “I received this model via insurance company, and I must say, I’m very disappointed. It was even said to me by a lactation consultant after delivery, ‘Oh, they sent you “that” one.’ Which meant she knew it was no good as well.”
(Updated Monday Nov 23: Medela has responded to this story with a statement here.)
(Updated 5:13pm Monday Nov 16: we corrected the pressure for the retail Pump in Style pumps; most pumps pull 240-250 while the occasional one will pull 275).
(Update: 2:04pm Tuesday) We’ve had some questions posted on Facebook and on other forums about this story, so we wanted to do a quick FAQ below.
Q. Do you still recommend Medela pumps?
Yes, we do. We have been writing and researching about baby gear (and breast pumps) for 20 years and during that time have recommended quite a few Medela breast pumps. Specifically, we currently recommend the Medela Pump in Style Advanced and Medela Freestyle.
However, at this time, we do NOT recommend the Medela Personal Double Pump (57038), as referenced in the above article. The complaints and concerns raised about this pump lead us to question its effectiveness compared to Medela’s other pumps.
Q. This is the pump I was just sent by my insurance! What to do now?