Getting a New Wheelchair

Over the years, the process of getting a new wheelchair has changed. When I was a teen, we had to travel more than an hour to a larger city where there was a wheelchair vendor. We looked at chairs, picked one out, measured me to size it properly, and then waited for it to come in.

While the essential process hasn’t changed, the hoops for insurance approval are a bit more challenging.

How often should a wheelchair be replaced?

The standard practice is to get a new wheelchair every five years. They eventually break down with wear. Sure, they can be repaired, but the fit also deteriorates as your body changes and the chair wears out.

Additionally, new technologies have improved wheelchairs over time and may help support you better if you get a new one.

It was time for a new wheelchair

My latest wheelchair has worked very well and has also been very sturdy and reliable. It hasn’t needed many repairs and has stood up to all the mileage I put on it. So, time got away from me and I realized earlier in the year that six years had already passed. I started planning for getting a new wheelchair when the pandemic started, so I had to put the process on hold until I felt it was safer to make the visits I would need.

Things to consider when replacing a wheelchair

Later in the summer, I got everything going again and received my new wheelchair in about two months from start to finish. While the process may vary in some ways, it generally entails these steps.

Get an order for a wheelchair evaluation from your primary care doctor

As part of the insurance approval process, most require a doctor’s order or referral. They want to know that you have a condition that requires a mobility device and have that supported by information that will be collected during an evaluation from a physical therapist.

Make sure to call your health insurance first to get information on coverage for durable medical equipment (the category that covers mobility devices like wheelchairs) and their process for getting a wheelchair. They may have preferred vendors and can tell you what percentage you may have to pay.

Visit a physical therapist to conduct the wheelchair evaluation

Before settling on the physical therapist, I actually asked around and made a few calls about what facilities conducted wheelchair evaluations, where they were located (so I could pick the easiest place for me to travel to), and if they had an OK reputation.

I wanted to find a place that had experience conducting evaluations and had some example wheelchairs that I could look at. The therapist I visited spoke with me about my needs in a wheelchair, looked at my positioning, took measurements, and showed me some options to think about.

Make a second visit with the physical therapist and wheelchair vendor representative

The next appointment was with the therapist and also a wheelchair vendor. The therapist coordinated schedules for us to meet together and I had a choice in vendors. I ended up selecting the one I previously used (the devil you know!) and it ended up being a fairly quick meeting as I had selected the new version of my old wheelchair.

We went over the options and I pretty much wanted to stick to a similar configuration as that has been comfortable and worked for my needs. Additional options like a seat that can raise up or tilt-back were available (at additional cost), but I decided they were not a priority and that simpler (or less things to break and worry about) would work better for me.

Wait! And possibly answer questions

This phase may be the hardest! It involves waiting and then more waiting. The physical therapist submits their evaluation and the vendor submits the paperwork for the wheelchair order.

First, it is signed by the primary care physician and then the whole package is sent to health insurance for review and approval. It can take a few weeks for the review and approval and may entail answering more questions or obtaining more documentation. Thankfully, mine was pretty smooth and the approval fairly quickly. (It felt miraculous! Perhaps they noticed I have needed a wheelchair for more than 30 years and decided it probably was still true! No miracle cure yet!)

Then the order is sent to the wheelchair manufacturer and it takes a few more weeks for them to make and ship out the wheelchair.

Make a final therapy visit to receive and adjust the wheelchair

This is the best part — receiving your new wheelchair! Since I use a motorized wheelchair, this part was a little tricky because I couldn’t use it to get to my appointment — how would it get back home? My husband Richard took me in my manual wheelchair so that afterward, he could take that (lighter, smaller, and foldable) chair back in a cab.

I tried out the new wheelchair with the physical therapist watching and we made adjustments to the armrest height and location, and even to the footrests to make sure it fit me precisely. The goal is to support me while leaving the room I need to be able to shift in the wheelchair. Even as I headed out, the therapist reminded me that I can make adjustments after I get home and had time to use the wheelchair more.

Additionally, Richard paid close attention to how the adjustments were made so that he could help if I needed more.

If you have a spare wheelchair, find a good home for it

The last couple of times I received a new wheelchair, I had an older one that was still functional and could help someone in need. I really only require one spare wheelchair, so it’s important to me to get extra wheelchairs to someone who needs one and may have trouble affording one. I have the good fortune to have good insurance and can afford a new wheelchair, while many people who need one cannot.

So, I look for local organizations that will take my old wheelchair and make sure it has a good home to help someone.

Wheelchairs help me maintain mobility

Getting a new wheelchair can be very exciting, but it is also important for maintaining my mobility and ability to get places. As much as I have apprehensions about the process, I’m always glad when I have my new wheelchair and realize that I am now more comfortable and supported for the next few years.

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