For power wheelchair users, keeping the device in good working order or getting it repaired when something goes wrong can be a challenge. It’s hard to find technicians who are trained to do the job, and delays and high costs also mean someone who relies on a power chair could completely lose mobility while waiting on a fix.
But a new Colorado law could provide more options for wheelchair users, and several other states may soon follow suit. Markian Hawryluk, senior Colorado correspondent for Kaiser Health News, spoke with the Standard about the law and what it means. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: How did this come into focus, and what kinds of things are going wrong with wheelchairs?
Markian Hawryluk: So, problems with repairing wheelchairs is not something new. It’s been happening quite a while. And the problem is that people rely on these wheelchairs. If something goes wrong, imagine you can’t get from your bedroom to your kitchen or your living room – what a loss of mobility that is for an individual.
But yet, when wheelchairs break down, the users often must wait weeks, if not months, to get something repaired. And part of that is the way that Medicare pays for power wheelchairs. They rely on suppliers who supply a wheelchair, and they make most of their money on the sale of the wheelchair. But there’s no provision in there for routine maintenance to keep that wheelchair up and running, and there’s really no incentive for these companies to invest in their repair services because they’re really losing money on the repairs.
It seems like there’s a small number of companies that actually do provide and maintain the equipment, right?
That’s correct. It used to be there were a lot of sort of smaller mom-and-pop shops that would supply wheelchairs in their neighborhood and repair them as needed. But over time, particularly with the input of private equity into the market to suppliers, Numotion and National Seating & Mobility have bought up a lot of these smaller wheelchair supplier companies, and they now dominate the industry.
Why not turn to those players that do dominate the industry, or maybe somebody you might find on Yelp or Craigslist? Is it possible for anyone with some technical skills to get things fixed?
These things can be rather complex. So, there are some sort of high-end fixes that might be beyond the ability of the average wheelchair user. But a lot of the routine kind of fixes that need to be made are replacing the padding on the seat, or the armrest or replacing a battery. And they’re pretty simple fixes and wouldn’t really take a lot. But unfortunately, the suppliers have really sort of locked down control over repair.
They often put in things like software keys or even actual physical keys that you need to make a repair on a wheelchair. They restrict access to the technical manuals, or the parts that you would need to repair or the tools that you would need to repair a chair. And that’s what the right-to-repair bill in Colorado was all about. They said, ‘Hey, if you guys let us have access to this, we can make a lot of these fixes ourselves or find an engineer down the street who knows how to work with these kinds of devices and can do the repairs for us.’
What is it that Colorado has done that might change things?
So, Colorado passed a right-to-repair bill, and it was signed into law by Governor [Jared] Polis and basically said, ‘Hey, you suppliers and manufacturers, you do have to provide access to parts, to tools, to service manuals. You can’t lock people out and say that they can’t repair their own chairs. You can’t make the claim that it will void the warranty and things of that sort.’ So, now a lot of people will be able to make the simple repairs themselves. And time will tell whether these mom-and-pop shops that can repair wheelchairs for people will now pop up now that it’s a more feasible kind of endeavor.
Is this something of a breakthrough when it comes to right to repair?
Absolutely. This is the first right-to-repair bill that’s been passed in the U.S. since Massachusetts passed one on auto repair, boy, at least more than a decade ago. And a lot of what happened with the auto makers is really interesting. They decided rather than refight this issue in every state across the country, they’re just going to take the Massachusetts laws and apply them across the board.
It’s unclear whether the same thing will happen with wheelchairs yet. We’re still waiting to see how the industry will react. But it’s quite possible that what Colorado has done may open the right to repair for wheelchairs across the country, and it might serve as the basis for other types of things. The common one that’s brought up is your iPhone. Like, should you be able to get in there and repair your own iPhone if you’re capable of doing it or not? So, these are discussions that will happen a lot more, I think, as we go forward.