People who use wheelchairs and those who advocate for them are urging state lawmakers to act quickly to pass a bill they say will alleviate chronic delays in getting broken wheelchairs fixed.
It’s a demoralizing problem that leaves many wheelchair users unable to go to work or school while stranded at home for weeks or even months, they said.
“When I need help, from replacing tires to motors, parts have always taken months to replace, not weeks,” Ellen Leigh of Arlington said at a press conference Thursday organized by advocates.
“There has been a problem every single time, no exceptions,” she said.
State Senator John Cronin is one of the sponsors of the bill that would try to speed up repairs by expanding warranty protections and requiring mandatory assessments of broken wheelchairs within three days. At the press conference, which was conducted remotely online and attended by more than 30 wheelchair users, Cronin said many other states have already adopted the measures now proposed in Massachusetts.
“In other parts of the country, there are stronger protections,” he said. “It’s time for Massachusetts to step up.”
Rick Glassman, director of advocacy for the Disability Law Center, helped organize the press conference to drum up support for the bill, which he called an important step needed to improve the lives of wheelchair users.
The bill, which was approved in November by a joint legislative committee, is currently before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Advocates say they are hoping for quick passage of the bill before the Legislature adjourns at the end of next month.
The bill is supported by a wide range of advocates. In a letter to legislators, a consortium of 15 organizations, including the Disability Policy Consortium and the Boston Center for Independent Living, voiced strong support for it.
“Our organizations regularly work with people who struggle to obtain repairs in a timely and reasonable fashion, often while isolated at home for extended periods of time,” the consortium wrote.
Delays in repairs leave many wheelchair users “stranded in their homes for days or weeks, and sometimes months at a time, unable to get to work, school, medical appointments, the grocery store, or other places in the community,” the consortium wrote.
Being homebound for an extended period, the letter continued “is also an issue which has severe implications for the health of wheelchair users who may be subject to pressure ulcers, blood clots, pneumonia, loss of physical function, and depression.”
One recent national survey of people who use wheelchairs found that about two-thirds said they needed repairs at least twice last year, and that repairs took a month or longer to be completed.
If enacted, the Massachusetts law would force manufacturers and providers to speed up the repair process by requiring them to make an assessment of a defective and inoperable wheelchair within three business days of receiving notice.
The proposed law would also require manufacturers and providers to make available a temporary “loaner” wheelchair within four business days of notice.
The bill would require manufacturers and providers to maintain an adequate inventory of parts and set a minimum warranty period of two years, doubling the current minimum warranty period of one year.
The bill would also expand “lemon law” remedies by mandating return or replacement of wheelchairs that are out of service for 21 days or after two failed attempts at repair.
Advocates for people who use wheelchairs have urged lawmakers to add to the bill a provision giving consumers the right to make simple repairs to their wheelchairs (for example, tightening or replacing nuts and bolts, and fixing tires) on their own without voiding their warranty by doing so.
Opposition to the bill has come from a group led by the National Coalition For Assistive & Rehab Technology, a trade group that represents manufacturers and providers of wheelchairs and other medical equipment.
The trade group, in a letter to legislators, wrote the bill “is not the answer … to improvements needed in the critical area of wheelchair repair.”
“We believe the focus should be on changes to problematic insurance plan policies and processes … instead of creating additional confusion, complications, and risks for wheelchair users and others,” the letter said.
The trade group focused on what it said was insurers’ “unreasonable prior approval requirements, excessive documentation requirements, and insufficient payment rates of federal, state, and commercial plans.”
In its letter, the consortium of advocates responded to the trade group by agreeing that there are problems with “excessive paperwork,” but that “this is a very different problem from warranty repair,” which is the focus of the current bill.
Manufacturers and providers “should stand behind their product” when wheelchairs require repairs during the warranty period, the advocates wrote.