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If there were three cell phone companies in your area, all with similarly-priced contracts and phones, and the company that you chose ended up having the worst coverage area and customer service, would you renew your contract with them after two years, or would you switch to one of the other companies?

If you were like most consumers, you'd note which of the other two companies your friends recommended, and switch to that company. After all, that's what savvy consumers do in situations of poor service.

Interestingly, one of the most common questions I'm asked by mobility consumers and providers alike is, Why don't some mobility consumers take a more proactive approach toward dealing with poor providers – that is, why is it that rather than seeking out a better provider, some consumers indefinitely stick with a poor provider, seemingly choosing to endure bad service, and forever complain about it to anyone who will listen, instead of taking the initiative to simply find a new provider?

Indeed, it's a question that perplexes me, too, where I have peers and consumers who have stayed with the same provider for years while claiming poor service. If the service is truly horrible, why would a consumer stick with a provider instead of seeking one of higher quality?

Dispelling "Captive Consumer" Myths
Now, much like one's first cell phone contract, it's sometimes understandable when a consumer ends up with a poor provider to begin with, as the emotions surrounding needing one's first wheelchair are complex, and most are intimidated by the wheelchair selection process, unsure what decisions to make. In this way, it's understandable that some consumers unwittingly purchase a wheelchair from a poor provider.

However, once one experiences poor service, one should logically begin seeking a new provider, if not to service a current wheelchair, certainly to purchase the next one. And, this is where the peculiar behavior of some consumers comes in: They purchase second and third wheelchairs through a provider that they claim to despise, where they seem to make themselves a glutton for punishment. Sometimes I just want to say, We've been having this same conversation for nine years about how much you despise your provider – at what point are you going to quite assuming the role of consumer-as-victim, and find a new provider?

When I do bring up the subject of switching providers, consumers often strive to give reasons why they haven't sought out better service:

My insurer limits me to this provider.
Historically, insurers – albeit governmental, private, or HMO – have “preferred provider” lists, where the beneficiary can choose from a number of providers in an area, not limited to just one. (Surely, there are exceptions, but they are extremely rare.) Therefore, if one believes that one is limited to a single provider, one should check with the insurer for a “preferred provider” list, as beneficiaries are virtually always allowed a choice of local providers.

My wheelchair was purchased through my provider by Medicare, so I have to go to that provider for the life of the wheelchair.
Beyond a “competitive bidding” area (which are extremely rare at this writing), Medicare does not lock a beneficiary into a single provider. One can seek out a new provider as long as the new provider is enrolled as a Medicare provider – and, from there, it's a matter of the new provider submitting the proper paperwork to service and repair the wheelchair. One may encounter a provider who only services the wheelchairs that he or she sells because the original funding documentation for your chair may not be available, and it's required to be in the possession of the new provider in order to deliver service covered by insurance. However, more and more providers are open to servicing products as a wise generator of revenue, so they welcome consumers looking to switch their Medicare and Medicaid business, and may work with you to compile needed documentation.

There's only one provider in my area.
I access among the most comprehensive, up-to-date provider locator databases in the country for consumers, and I've never entered a consumer's zip code, only to find one provider. To the contrary, most consumers are within the service area of at least three – but commonly 5 or more – qualified providers. I've had a consumer complain about the same provider for years in Southern California; meanwhile, there are no less than 11 qualified providers within a 25-mile radius of the individual's home. While simply looking in one's local phone book will show providers in an area, most wheelchair manufacturers have dealer locators on their websites, where entering one's zip code will provide a comprehensive list of providers. When a consumer truly looks, one is often surprised at the number of qualified providers nearby.

All providers are terrible, so there's no use in switching.
I've known many providers, including some rotten one's; however, I know many that are great, truly in it as a personally rewarding career – that is, they care. And, in any given geographical area, there are excellent providers. Again, seek out the quality providers in one's area – they are there, and it's one's personal responsibility to find them.

If switching providers is so easy, then do it for me. ...You don't know what it's like trying to switch.
Over an approximately twenty-year period, I switched providers four times. It was never a desirable process, but a necessary one, where when service declined – due to staff changes or new ownership – I sought out a new provider. Today, I'm glad to give a consumer a list of providers in one's area, and even recommend particular ones if I know of their quality service. However, it's ultimately each of our sole responsibilities to be accountable for our individual mobility, including ensuring appropriate service – and we each have to do what it takes to switch providers when needed.

The True Cost of Ongoing Poor Service
Many consumers don't realize that when they stick with a poor provider out of complacency, it also harms others with disabilities. A consumer-driven market dictates that desirable businesses flourish, and undesirable businesses fade away because they don't make money. In this same light, when a mobility consumer keeps giving a poor-quality provider one's business, one is rewarding bad behavior and keeping that provider in business. By contrast, if mobility consumers productively pursue a consumer-driven model, seeking quality providers, they reward the quality providers while starving poor providers out of the industry – an advantage for all. It's really simple market dynamics: Support the good, shun the bad, and the overall quality of service elevates.

A Little Now Means a Lot Later
Many consumers are fortunate to have great providers. However, if you've felt trapped by poor service, start making moves toward a new, better provider. Understand your funding source's “preferred provider” list in your area; use on-line provider locators to determine all providers in your area; poll peers for provider recommendations; and, pursue any paperwork process to transfer your business to a new provider. No, the process of switching providers isn't always easy or seamless. However, investing a little time now toward securing a meaningful provider will mean a lot toward more reliable, stress-free mobility in the years to come.

Related Article
Picking a Provider

Published 2/2010, Copyright 2010,