Montana lawmakers shoot down law that would help wheelchair users repair their own equipment

By: - January 30, 2023 7:40 am

An electric-wheelchair allows a senior to enjoy the park in Ottawa, Canada (Photo by CBuske46 via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 4.0)

More than a decade ago, Congress required car manufacturers to disclose more information, sell parts and share some technology with consumers and non-dealer repair shops, marking a win for the right-to-repair movement.

And advocates and members of Montana’s disability community last week testified that a motorized wheelchair was also an essential means for transportation, especially in a state with so many roads.

However, Montana lawmakers stopped a bill that would have given motorized wheelchair users more control over their chairs by requiring manufacturers to provide information, including manuals, some software and tools so that those same users and other independent repair shops can do the work.

“If I want to repair the water pump in my truck, I would go to the library, look up the manual, go to YouTube university and then decide if I thought I could do it, but it at least it would make it available to repair,” said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula. “For people using motorized chairs, it will let them know what tools they need and what to do. At the very least, they get to decide and we heard from people with disabilities that they want this.”

House Bill 195, sponsored by Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, would have required manufacturers to disclose enough information or sell parts to consumers or other repair shops. Several mobilized wheelchair users testified before the Montana House Human Services Committee that nearly two-thirds of those who needed a repair waited more than four weeks, while 40% reported waiting longer than seven weeks.

In a narrow 11-to-10 vote, some Republicans moved to table the bill in committee because they worried about the safety of those users.

“These chairs are so complicated that if there’s a friend or a neighbor who says they can fix, but they don’t know what they’re doing, then that becomes a safety issue,” said Rep. Greg Oblander, R-Billings. “I won’t support it because I am worried about the people in the chair.”

Rep. Ron Marshall, R-Hamilton, said that requiring manufacturers to release tools and manuals was just the beginning.

“We’re walking down a slippery slope here,” Marshall said. “If they do something wrong, then these chairs are way more dangerous.”

In a hearing on the bill, advocates from disability rights community and members of the public shared stories about the challenges to repairing the machinery.

The only group to oppose the measure was a trade association representing the medical device industry, which said the process of repair was more complicated, and fixing problems without training could lead to more damage and voiding of warranties on chairs that retail for in excess of $35,000.

“We’re concerned with patient safety and the injuries that could take place,” said Eric Ecker, representing the Big Sky Association of Medical Devices, which covers Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

He credited part of the delay in repair on the cumbersome insurance system of Medicare and Medicaid, which require doctors to continuously sign-off on the medical necessity of a wheelchair every time a repair is needed. Doctors, he said, have to attest that the wheelchair is still needed, even if that person has a chronic condition.

“Because wheelchair users use these devices for everything, they are their form of mobility, freedom, health and safety,” Buckley said. “This does not disrupt the existing pathways. Consumers still have that option. It doesn’t force them to do anything, it just opens up their options.

“This is about property rights. If they don’t have the right to fix or maintain their own equipment, who does it really belong to?”

Ninety-three percent of motorized chair users reported that their chairs break at least yearly, leading to a loss of productivity and freedom.

“This is the freedom to make decisions on their own terms for things that are directly related to their freedom,” said Maggie Bornstein, who testified on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Montana Farmers Union also supported the bill, saying the right-to-repair had many facets.

“Whether it’s a wheelchair or a combine, the right-to-repair our own equipment is critically important to our members,” said Jasmine Krotkov, who represented the union.

Montana Blue Cross/Blue Shield also supported the measure because it said that delays in repairs means delays in healthcare.

“Losing your access to healthcare represents an interruption in the continuum of care and healthcare gets more critical and costs more,” said John Doran, the vice president of external affairs for MBCBS.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.