Electric wheelchair (sweet tomato via Shutterstock)

Maureen Amirault began trying in 2021 to arrange for the servicer of her wheelchair to repair an ill-fitted footplate. After two years of phone calls, sores and now deformed foot bones, she told a legislative task force last week that the issue remained unresolved.

Amirault, a Wethersfield resident who relies on her specialized wheelchair as a result of progressive condition, was one of several users to share their stories during a Thursday meeting of a working group tasked with addressing long delays reported by those in need of repairs for their wheelchairs. 

“I have sores,” Amirault told the panel. “I haven’t been able to elevate my feet for the whole three years I’ve had my chair and also, because of the way my feet are sitting on the footplates, the bones have deformed. They’re turning inwards and I can no longer wear shoes.”

Advocates say Amirault’s story is emblematic of a larger issue within a wheelchair supply market largely controlled by two companies — National Seating and Mobility (NSM) and Numotion. 

During the meeting, advocate Jonathan Sigworth presented the results of informal surveys, questioning wheelchair users about their experiences attempting to secure repairs. 

Of 73 manual and power wheelchair users surveyed between last November and January, 76% said it took an average of at least one month to repair or replace equipment after they contacted their vendor. Nine respondents reported waiting longer than six months. 

“These are the people we were able to get in contact with and I really believe that these stories represent a much larger number of individuals,” Sigworth said. 

Amirault described making dozens of phone calls, texts and emails only to receive conflicting information about the delays. Sometimes she was bumped to the back of the line when her chair’s parts didn’t come in. 

Advocates chalk much of the delays up to short staffing among technicians at the repair companies. Amirault, a Numotion customer, described the company’s techs as helpful but overworked. Sigworth told the group that a bearing replacement on his chair took several months due to difficulties getting in touch with someone at NSM. 

“There was one person in the office running customer service, prior authorization, all the billing, all the scheduling for the techs,” Sigworth said. “One person was in the office, everyone else was on the road doing repairs. When you have such low level of staffing in charge of orders, verifications, of billing — these things are going to happen.”

Although the wheelchair supply companies do not generally contest that repairs often take too long, they attribute much of the issue to backlogs created by lingering supply chain hitches related to components like microchips as well as delays in receiving prior authorization from insurance companies.

During a meeting earlier this month, Gary Gilberti, an executive vice president for Numotion, said that the company had 14 field technicians in Connecticut and another 24 remote techs assigned to the eastern half of the U.S. 

“We’re only one short of full staff, techs, at this point,” Gilberti said. “We feel like we have sufficient staff if we can get product to come through and get the ability to get some of this backlog done.” 

To the extent that staffing is a problem, Wayne Grau, executive director of the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology, said that suppliers and manufacturers have had a difficult time finding qualified recruits.

“We have to be selective. We just can’t pull somebody off the street,” Grau said. “We want to make sure they’re qualified, want to make sure that they have the right temperament and everything to work with our clients.”

The Wheelchair Repair Task Force is expected to continue its work during a meeting scheduled on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. Eventually the group will make a set of policy recommendations ahead of next year’s legislative session. 

During last week’s meeting, Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, suggested that members focus on adopting recommendations likely to garner enough support to make it through the legislative process.

“We can shoot for the moon, and I think we certainly will in some cases, but you need to recognize that the policy recommendations may not be — although they make all the sense in the world from a logistical standpoint — they may not pass,” she said and encourage members to consider non-legislative approaches. 

Sigworth said that many fixes could be implemented immediately by the parties involved without legislation. 

“The reason why shooting for the moon and legislating as much of this as possible is very important for consumers is because consumers do not have a seat at this table,” he said. “We do not have a voice in any of this policy or company decisions except if we’re running the company ourselves or through our legislators.”