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Lawmakers and Advocates Press for Quicker Wheelchair Repair Times

HARTFORD — It can currently take up to a year to fix wheelchairs for the state’s approximately 5,000 users. And while advocates, lawmakers and repair technicians agree the delays are excessive, agreeing on an acceptable turnaround time has proven challenging. 

In February, a legislative task force recommended that all wheelchairs be repaired in 10 business days. The report notes that consumers and advocates believe repairs can be made within a period of four business days or six calendar days.

NuMotion and National Seating and Mobility, the two primary companies in Connecticut that fix wheelchairs, also participated in the task force but disagreed on setting a time limit.

The task force report may undergo changes before the legislative session ends in three weeks, as lawmakers adjust key details to secure approval from both chambers and a signature from Gov. Ned Lamont.

Another point of dispute concerns the task force’s suggestion to eliminate prior authorizations, which require an insurance company’s approval before repairs are carried out. This recommendation is opposed by the Connecticut Association of Health Plans.

However, many lawmakers acknowledge that provisions with a significant price tag won’t make it into the new law. 

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, told CT Examiner she doubts her $2 million proposal for insurance companies to cover the cost of motorized wheelchairs will advance, noting the funds would instead come from the state’s Insurance Fund.

“It won’t happen this year,” she said. “We are very tight on money and we often don’t put in high-ticket items or any financial losses in the second year of the budget.”

Wheelchair advocate Jonthan Sigworth told CT Examiner, “At the end of the day, the cost savings really shouldn’t be an issue because these are people’s lives on the line. … The state of Connecticut is financially [strong] and they can afford to invest in the disabled community, and currently they are not.”

Sigworth, who has used a wheelchair since suffering injuries from a fall off a cliff in India at 19, founded the advocacy nonprofit More Than Walking and is a member of the CT Wheelchair Reform Coalition, which has been vocal on the issue as well.

“[NuMotion and NSM] are holding users hostage because we have no other options,” he said. “They need to face some significant financial risk [for noncompliance].”

NuMotion and NSM, both private-equity owned and based out-of-state, operate three branches in Connecticut with a combined total of 28 repair technicians for over 5,000 wheelchairs. Typically, these technicians travel to clients’ homes to perform repairs.

Medicaid and insurance cover the vast majority of wheelchair repairs, experts said.

The task force report revealed that out of 73 consumers responding to a survey about repair times, 56 waited between one and six months for wheelchair repairs, with some reporting waits of over a year, according to advocates.

The bill would allow the state Department of Social Services to enforce penalties upon the two companies if repairs are not completed in a timely fashion, including withholding Medicaid funding. 

NSM declined to comment on the matter, and NuMotion did not respond to a request for comment. 

Wayne Grau, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology, told CT Examiner that the industry supports 10 out of the 12 task force recommendations. However, he disagrees with the proposed timeframe for wheelchair repairs and the penalty phase.

“We have to do better,” Grau said, noting that NuMotion and NSM are each in the process of hiring three additional technicians and one customer service representative. Grau said wheelchair repair wait times should decrease considerably, though declined to specify by how much. 

Those additional staff, Grau said, “are already starting to make a difference. We are starting to see the backlog come down.” 

Grau noted that while some individuals cannot visit the repair shops, others can visit in person. He suggested that reducing wait times is possible by encouraging more individuals to bring their wheelchairs for repair directly to the shops. COVID, he added, made everything in his business — from staffing to the supply chain — worse.

“The process has been inefficient for 20 years, ever since I’ve been in the industry,” he said. “But COVID changed everything. The whole market changed.”

If the bill passes, Grau said he supports having an advisory committee on wheelchairs repairs after the legislative session. 

“We can sit down and share information on how we can get better. It’s all about making sure we get their equipment repaired as fast as possible,” he said. 

State Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, has been an advocate for the disabled for years and is at the forefront of pushing for quicker wheelchair repairs. 

“It’s a balancing act between everybody, but we are trying to address the concerns of the consumers and they have a legitimate gripe,” she told CT Examiner. 

Seminara said most wheelchair users have specialized wheelchairs, which can range widely in price and cost up to $65,000.

Seminara, whose 25-year-old daughter Martina needs a wheelchair to travel long distances, said the measure has bipartisan support. 

“Who doesn’t want to make people’s lives easier? I think people recognize that this is an issue, and it’s not just an issue in Connecticut.”

Beverley Brakeman, chair of the wheelchair repair task force and a lobbyist, told CT Examiner that “having wheelchairs is a human right.” 

Brakeman said everyone on the task force — which included industry stakeholders, lawmakers, advocates, consumers, Medicaid representatives, lobbyists and insurance companies, among others — would agree that something needs to be done for wheelchair users. 

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