DENVER — If there’s one thing Oliver Giminaro has a lot of, it’s patience. It’s not that Giminaro wants to be a patient person, per say. He’s just gotten a lot of practice at it over the past three decades waiting for wheelchair repairs.
Ever since he suffered a spinal cord injury while on vacation as a teenager, Giminaro has relied on an electric wheelchair to get around.
As with other electronics, Giminaro’s wheelchair needs to undergo regular repairs to function properly. The most common repairs are battery or tire replacements or changing out the cushions.
In a good year, his wheelchair could require as few as two repairs. More commonly, though, the wheelchair requires five to six fixes per year.
Because Giminaro uses Medicaid to pay for the chair, the process to make the repairs can take a long time. First, he has to report the needed repair to the wheelchair provider. Then, a technician has to come out to verify that the repair is needed. Next, the company must file paperwork in order to get prior authorization from Medicaid to pay for the repairs. The replacement part is then ordered, and a technician will return to make the repair.
“The best case scenario on a part like, say tires that you know it's going to be replaced, it can be three to four months to get that repaired,” Giminaro said. “You're no longer able to be a functioning member of society, and that's, it's a huge emotional toll.”
In some cases, the wheelchair user might be able to use a manual wheelchair. However, many users also have mobility issues with their hands or arms and are not able to push themselves around. In other instances, companies might loan the user a wheelchair. However, because the chair is not customized to their bodies, using a loaned wheelchair can be harmful to the person’s health, causing sores or posture problems.
In some of the worst scenarios, some of Giminaro’s friends have waited for a year in bed for their chair to be repaired.
“If you had an automobile and they said it's going to take four to six months to fix, that would be unacceptable, and a wheelchair is so much more important than the automobile,” Giminaro said.
In rural areas, the wait can be even longer. Kenny Maestas is the legislative coordinator of the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition. He lives in Lamar and also relies on an electric wheelchair for his mobility.
“They can't just send a tech out just for me," Maestas said. "There has to be more than one call in order for them to respond to a rural repair issue."
Colorado lawmakers have introduced two bills to try to make the wheelchair repair process a little easier.
House Bill 22-1290 would cut down on the steps Medicaid recipients need to go through for a repair by prohibiting the healthcare policy and financing department from requiring prior authorization for repairs.
“It would save them a trip, it would save them the time and it would save me the hassle of having to wait,” Maestas said. “We could go from 53 days probably to seven, and what a difference that would make for my life.”
The bill would also increase the rural reimbursement rate for wheelchair repairs and allow the state to fine providers for violating repair metric rules.
House Bill 22-1031, meanwhile, would create a "right to repair" law and allow wheelchair users to either make repairs on their own or go to an independent mechanic for help.
“It is going to allow wheelchair users to be able to take some of the power back into their own hands to make simple repairs. It's going to also hold providers accountable in repairing wheelchairs in a timely manner,” said Rep. David Ortiz, D-Arapahoe.
Ortiz is a prime sponsor on both bills. He is also Colorado’s first state lawmaker who uses a wheelchair.
“When it comes to wheelchairs, we're not talking about a pair of shoes or a car. You can still get around on your two legs if you have a car breakdown or other issues that happen. This is literally our mobility,” Ortiz said.
The bill would also require manufacturers to reasonably provide parts, embedded software, firmware, tools or documentation to allow the wheelchair users to go to an independent mechanic for repairs.
Finally, it would bar manufacturers from creating new contractual provisions that would limit a wheelchair user’s ability to seek an independent repair.
“We're not asking, you know, to change the world. We just want to make it a little bit easier,” Maestas said.
During the bills’ first committee test Tuesday, wheelchair user after wheelchair user shared their repair stories with state lawmakers as they urged for the passage of both pieces of legislation. Some spoke about waiting for months for a couple of bolts and washers to be replaced. Giminaro says the legislation would be life changing.
However, both bills are facing some industry opposition. The Colorado Competitive Council, Colorado Association of Medical Equipment Services, Colorado BioScience Association and NuMotion all oppose the right to repair bill.
With HB 22-1290, critics opposed the financial penalties portion of the bill, saying it could dissuade other wheelchair providers from operating in Colorado and further limit options for users.
“This will only serve to further decrease the small number of companies providing wheelchair repairs and make it even more difficult for people with disabilities get access to timely service and repairs,” Ted Malkowski testified during the committee testimony.
Malkowski went on to say that these repairs are expensive and labor intensive. He agreed that the timing for repairs is too long in many cases and said there are some ways the industry can try to address that and increase accountability. However, he feels HB 22-1290 further penalizes providers with fines.
Despite the opposition, both bills passed committee and will move on in the legislative process.