‘First reaction is panic.’ State task force tackling long waits for wheelchair repairs
Wheelchair users can wait months for repairs, leaving their lives in limbo. A new state task force met Thursday to tackle the issue, but solutions won’t be easy – or cheap.
Tom Wade, of Milford, is paralyzed below the neck. A wheelchair malfunction means he's literally stuck.
“The first reaction is panic,” he said. “I'm lucky, in that I have a spare wheelchair. However, the spare wheelchair can cause sores.”
A Wheelchair Repair Task Force will recommend new laws by Feb. 1, 2024. The panel includes people who use wheelchairs, disability advocates, medical equipment manufacturers and the insurance industry. Among the ideas they’re considering:
- Requiring live operators for repair calls, 24 hours a day
- For emergencies, wheelchair companies would have to offer an in-home repair the next day
- Other issues would be evaluated within three days
- Loaner wheelchairs would be required
‘WE DON’T HAVE THE PEOPLE’
Wheelchair industry representatives told the group that wait times are dropping and that many repairs can now be done remotely.
“In Connecticut, we've had over 750 successful remote diagnostics done,” said Diane Racicot, a vice president at National Seating and Mobility.
But supplies and trained repair technicians remain in short supply.
“We have at least 30 openings on any given day,” said Gary Gilberti, executive vice president of Numotion, a national durable medical equipment provider. “We just don't have the capacity. We don't have the people; we don't have the resources otherwise. And the reimbursement structure that we're within right now doesn't support that.”
But advocates also point the finger at consolidation.
“Two large national wheelchair supply companies now completely control the market for customized wheelchairs in Connecticut, having bought out the small, local companies which used to provide quality service to wheelchair users,” Sheldon Toubman, an attorney with Disability Rights CT, told lawmakers in February. “I remember when the local companies used to provide timely, personalized services to people who depended on their wheelchairs for basic mobility – the owners knew many of their customers by name.”
Both sides do agree on one thing. Both blamed red tape from health insurers for unnecessary delays. They argued that carriers should also cover preventative maintenance on wheelchairs.
“RIGHT TO REPAIR”
Earlier this year, Connecticut lawmakers considered letting users fix their own wheelchairs or hire a third party to do the work. But manufacturers argued that a “Right to Repair” law could be dangerous and even violate federal regulations.
“Adjustments or repairs to such equipment can have a significant impact on the wheelchair user’s positioning and safety,” Mickae Lee, associate director of the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology, testified in February. “Even small maladjustments can impact the person’s respiratory function, digestive function, circulatory function, and needed skin pressure relief.”
Amid those concerns, legislators opted for a new task force instead. Wade hopes lawmakers will actually act on the group’s recommendations.
“I need them to understand, as much as their life is important and the activities they do, so are mine,” he said.