State lawmakers face ‘hard decisions’ about lengthy wheelchair repairs
Connecticut’s roughly 5,000 wheelchair users can wait months for repairs, leaving their lives in limbo.
Now, they may finally get relief. A state task force is finalizing recommendations for lawmakers, but the group is having difficulty agreeing on solutions.
LONG WAIT TIMES
Jonathan Sigworth, of Stratford, knows the struggle all too well.
“I have had a spinal cord injury since 2006,” he said. “The chair is everything.”
Sigworth started the disability rights group More Than Walking. When his wheelchair breaks, Sigworth is in for a wait.
“Ninety percent of consumers are waiting a month for at-home assessment, and a month for an in-home repair,” he said.
WHEELCHAIR REPAIR TASK FORCE
Sigworth is part of a Wheelchair Repair Task Force that includes users like him, as well as state agencies, insurers and the repair industry. After four months of sometimes contentious meetings, the panel unveiled draft recommendations on Thursday.
As part of the plan, Connecticut’s two remaining repair companies agreed to hire three new technicians each.
“It’s important that we emphasize that the real elephant in the room is always the staffing issue,” said state Rep. Frank Smith (D-Milford), another task force member. “If we did nothing else, this task force has already gotten more technicians on the field in Connecticut.”
But other possible recommendations are more controversial:
- Time limit to evaluate a wheelchair repair, including late penalties
- Removing insurance pre-authorization for repairs
- Insurance coverage for preventative maintenance, transportation to repair shops and overnight shipping for parts
- Allowing alternative repair options, like using nonprofits
The task force is having trouble agreeing on most items.
“There is almost not one single recommendation that is a consensus recommendation,” task force chair Beverly Brakeman said at Thursday’s meeting.
The wheelchair industry said wait times are dropping, and many repairs can now be done remotely. They’re taking a wait-and-see approach to the task force’s draft report.
“The way I read it was that we would have that ability to speak about each recommendation,” Wayne Grau, executive director of the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology, told the panel. “And if we do have any issues with any of them, we'll put that in the written comments.”
Industry reps have said that supplies and trained technicians remain in short supply.
“We have at least 30 openings on any given day,” Gary Gilberti, executive vice president of Numotion, a national durable medical equipment provider, told members in August. “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 last 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.”
The Wheelchair Repair Task Force will issue formal recommendations by the end of this month. With each side so far apart, Sigworth knows any legislation faces an uphill battle.
“Lawmakers are going to have to make some hard decisions,” he said. “And those hard decisions are going to have to go against the grain from two gigantic industries that have a lot of lobbying power.”
He hopes legislators put themselves in his shoes – and his chair.
“I was doing extreme unicycling and then the next thing I know, I’m stuck in a wheelchair,” he said. “This can happen to any of us.”
Click here to learn more about Sigworth’s efforts this legislative session.