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‘We’ve been fighting so hard’: Senate passes bill to address wheelchair repairs that can drag on for months

The problem keeping wheelchair users in limbo
WATCH: People are waiting months for basic repairs. Reporter Jason Laughlin explains who’s at fault.

Wheelchair users took a victory lap at the State House on Thursday after the state Senate passed legislation to address a national crisis, chronic delays of months or longer for even the most basic repairs to chairs.

The bill, passed with a vote of 39-0, would extend warranties on new chairs from one year to two, a period during which chair owners could avoid cumbersome insurance authorization for fixes, advocates said. Chairs with expired warranties would not need insurance approval for repairs less than $1,000.

“We’ve been fighting so hard just to get here,” said Pamela Daly, of Charlestown, after the Senate vote. “They’re simple mechanical problems or they’re simple parts that need to be ordered. This is not rocket science.”

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Daly noted she was late for Thursday’s vote because her wheelchair’s brakes, installed about a month ago, failed earlier that morning, and she fell while trying to get into her chair. Though uninjured, she had to call paramedics to help her get into her chair.

The bill, if it became law, would create deadlines for wheelchair repair companies when they receive a report of a broken chair. Providers would have three days to conduct a virtual assessment of a broken and unusable chair, and four days to conduct an in-person assessment, if necessary. Providers would also have to make available a temporary replacement chair, if needed, within four days, or within eight days for people who use customized wheelchairs.

Providers would have to offer a loaner chair or a refund if repeated attempts at repairs don’t work and would be required to maintain a stock of chairs and parts. If the warranty isn’t honored, the attorney general could sue for damages on behalf of a chair owner.

“For those who rely on their wheelchair to provide for their family and themselves, who are too often forced to forego medical treatment, who lose out on wages, and lose time with their loved ones in the event of a broken chair — this bill isn’t just for you, it is because of you,” the bill’s sponsor, Senator John Cronin, a Democrat from Worcester, said in remarks to the Senate before the vote.

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A similar bill passed the Senate in 2022 but never reached a House vote. Advocates are hopeful that the Senate vote Thursday gives the House ample time to act.

James O’Day, a Worcester Democrat sponsoring the House bill, said wheelchair users’ stories of long waits for fixes are outrageous and “will hopefully help my colleagues recognize this is a critical issue that really needs to be addressed.”

The National Coalition of Assistive and Rehab Technology, an industry trade group, would prefer to see a different bill pass the House, according to a statement Thursday from executive director Wayne Grau. That bill would eliminate prior insurance authorization for wheelchair repairs but doesn’t include longer warranties.

O’Day would not support what he described as a bill with less scope, he said Thursday.

Last year, The Boston Globe highlighted the plight of wheelchair users who are at the mercy of an industry dominated by large, private equity-owned national companies that prioritize profits, experts say, and invest less in repairs. Delayed repairs can be devastating, leaving people who rely on wheelchairs marooned in their homes.

“If you don’t have a functioning wheelchair, you’re stuck,” said Chris Hoeh, a Boston tutor and disability advocate who is in the midst of a months-long struggle to complete simple repairs to his power chair. “We are not wheelchair-bound. We are freed by our wheelchair.”

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A quadriplegic, Hoeh needed fixes to his wheelchair in September, including a strap that secures him when he shifts his chair to a standing position and a front light. In November, he visited the Taunton repair shop for Numotion, one of two national companies that dominate the wheelchair industry, but the company had ordered the wrong strap and didn’t have the wire needed to fix the light. During the repairs, the company lost a screw that holds in place a protective panel and installed casters on the wheels that made the chair too low to the ground, making it difficult to secure the chair in a modified van he drives.

Hoeh managed to find solutions for the panel and the wheels but still needs the strap and light repaired. The company wouldn’t bring the parts Hoeh needed to his home until March, he said. On Thursday, shortly after a reporter contacted the company for comment, Hoeh said Numotion notified him that repair personnel could visit him next week.

“The amount of wasted time, it’s greed over need,” the Jamaica Plains resident said.

Wheelchair users and advocates acknowledge that insurance authorization for repairs can take too long, and scheduling in-person visits with repair staff is time-consuming, but they view private equity’s role in the wheelchair industry as a major cause of the delays.

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Private equity investors typically leverage significant debt to acquire companies and push for quick, significant profits, often gained through cost-cutting, according to a report on the role of private equity in the durable medical equipment industry issued in November by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project and the National Disability Rights Network. In the wheelchair industry, the November report stated, sales are profitable. Repairs are not. That imbalance is exacerbated by inadequate insurance reimbursement for repairs, the report stated.

The private equity firm AEA acquired Numotion in 2018 through an affiliate. The other dominant company in the industry, National Seating and Mobility, was sold to Cinven, a European private equity firm, in 2019.

Numotion and NSM did not respond to requests for comment.

Private equity investment in health-related industries is widespread and controversial. This week, the Globe reported on a health care provider, Wellpath, owned by private equity. It is at risk of losing a contract to provide health care for the Massachusetts Department of Corrections amid accusations of understaffing, failing to provide care, and relying on restraints and solitary confinement unnecessarily for people with mental health issues. Stat reported in December that private equity-owned hospitals saw a 25 percent increase in adverse events compared with other hospitals.

“We have a situation where the free market does not work,” said Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the Disability Law Center, a group that pushed hard for passage of the Senate bill.

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Jason Laughlin can be reached at jason.laughlin@globe.com. Follow him @jasmlaughlin.