There’s Got to Be a Better Way to Buy Wheelchairs

Honestly, it’s only gotten worse during the about 30 years that I’ve needed a wheelchair. It keeps getting harder, more crooked (as in fraud), and less efficient. More and more of the work ends up on the patients.

Why do we make it harder to get the mobility devices that people with disabilities need to get around for essential activities?

Wheelchair users in the United States

According to a 2014 Census Report, there are about 5.5 million wheelchair users in the United States (probably more now as the report is a few years old).

While this isn’t a huge portion of the population, it is enough that we should know what we are doing by now and should be doing better at providing wheelchairs (quickly and efficiently) to the people who need them.

Obtaining a wheelchair wasn't so difficult

When I was 10 years old and started needing a wheelchair, I don’t remember obtaining one being so difficult (of course, that is the perspective of being a child). We went to the vendor, tried different chairs, measured me, ordered it, and picked it up when it arrived. The health insurance paid part and my family paid the remaining portion.

Over the years, the process has become more opaque and less customer-focused. I started having to provide a referral from my doctor, which I don’t mind. But in recent years things have gone downhill with unnecessary complications.

Visiting PT for a wheelchair assessment

During my recent wheelchair purchase, I started by getting a referral from my doctor to visit a physical therapist (PT) for a wheelchair assessment.

I had to do two separate appointments with the PT and the second with a representative from the wheelchair vendor. (Seeing a PT had never before been required as the representative previously had been trained and ready to do my fitting measurements themselves.)

I had to pay these people to tell them what I need in order to purchase a wheelchair. So, I paid in both time and money just to tell them what type of wheelchair works for me before it could even be ordered.

A huge waste of time, money, and energy

As an aside, the PT facility I visited charged me quadruple my usual PT co-pay for each of the appointments saying “that is what they charge for a wheelchair assessment.” My visit involved no special equipment other than seeing other wheelchairs sitting around the walls of a room. It also didn’t provide me special expertise or insights. This boondoggle was a huge waste of both my time and money.

When I was billed and protested the fee, both the PT facility and the health insurance shrugged and said they can do that and there was nothing I can do about it. Let’s just say I won’t be going back to that facility for anything, at any time.

Insurance pre-approval and next steps

Then, the waiting begins. The vendor collects paper, such as a signature from my doctor about my condition, documents written by the PT, and so forth, and submits those documents along with the actual wheelchair specifications to my health insurance for pre-approval.

Once pre-approval is achieved, the wheelchair is ordered. Then, it is built by the actual wheelchair manufacturer, delivered to the vendor, who then calls me to make an appointment back at the PT facility for me to pick up the chair.

Multiple errors by the vendor

In my case, there were mess-ups by the vendor. I found out later that the insurance pre-approval was not made and they had to re-submit after I had already picked up the wheelchair. However, that’s on them and not me.

I also learned they were not to bill me; instead, it was supposed to be the insurance go-between company. I had to needlessly pay half my part of the wheelchair before they would order it from the manufacturer. In short, the vendor did a lot wrong (and possibly illegal or against contract agreements they had in place).

Previous bill issue with the same vendor

This was not surprising because the same vendor got in trouble with billing my previous wheelchair six years ago when they billed my health insurance for both the wheelchair as a whole and then its individual parts. They lost that fight, but it took me two years to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, the selection of vendors is so poor that I had to use them again this time around, knowing that they do shady things.

When I picked up my new wheelchair, an expert from the wheelchair manufacturer actually came with the vendor and he did the fitting adjustments. So, the vendor company actually was a waste. They transmitted paper and didn’t even do that right. Additionally, I found out months later that a foam wedge that was supposed to be in my seat cushion was never inserted, so we had to do it ourselves.

Deterioration of the wheelchair industry

Lack of competition and knowledge

I’m not sure what has happened over the years with wheelchair purchases. I have heard that vendors for durable medical equipment have consolidated and that terrible ones have risen to the top by operating on the cheap and buying up the competition. I’ve heard the company that I have used in particular has pushed cutting costs to the extreme.

The expert people have left the company and incompetence reigns supreme. (My husband Richard befriended a few of the repair people and they all expressed their displeasure with management and are now gone.)

The impact of Medicare

Additionally, Medicare drives a lot of the practices around durable medical equipment and they have made it harder to get equipment, with more hoops to jump through. I understand they want to cut back on fraud, but it just seems to have made the whole experience less responsible to the people that actually need and use wheelchairs.

Although I have private insurance, all the vendors have to follow the Medicare rules. There are now only a few that can afford to, and they seem to be the worst and don’t at all care about customer service and providing quality work. They care most about getting paid as much as possible.

Flipping the situation

If I had my druthers, I would no longer go through a vendor for my wheelchairs. I know what wheelchair manufacturing company I like, so I’d go directly to them with a prescription from my doctor. They’d meet with me to review my previous specs and see what changes I needed. I would order, submit to my insurance, and be done with it.

Right now, getting a new wheelchair is just another boondoggle that I don’t benefit from. We need to turn the situation on its head and make customers the boss again.

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