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As much as we depend on our mobility products as extensions of our bodies, they are just that, products, mechanical devices where issues can arise, from an obvious flat tire to an inexplicable electronics error.  As such, the question is, what do you do when an issue arises with your wheelchair, and how is it resolved?

Safety First
The first priority in addressing a discovered issue with your wheelchair is to immediately determine whether there is a risk to your safety if you continue using it?  Your physical condition, environment, and extent of the issue all dictate whether it is appropriate to continue using the wheelchair while seeking service, or if you should immediately park it?  For example, reduced battery range may not effect the use of a powerchair in one's home while awaiting service, but it may not be prudent to try to trek a few miles to the store, with the risk of being stranded.  Nevertheless, if there is the slightest concern that your wheelchair is unsafe in any way, you should immediately park it while awaiting service.

Provider as Call Number One
As soon as you discover an issue with your wheelchair, you should contact your provider.  Service in the wheelchair industry is set up so that the provider who originally sold you the wheelchair is the one who's responsible for its service, as well.  Most manufacturers, in fact, require that providers have the ability to service products responsibly and skillfully, and supply them with full product training and service guides, as well as live technical support via the phone during extended business hours.  Further, some manufacturers have regional field support technicians who visit providers to lend hands-on technical support when needed.  In this way, providers have the capacity to resolve even the most complex issues, with the ability to access vast service support resources.

Understanding Warranties
Wheelchair warranties are historically based on terms whereas the manufacturer covers only the cost of parts, not labor and shipping charges.  However, Medicare and other insurers cover labor and shipping charges, making the vast majority of warranty repairs bill-free for the user.  For wheelchairs out of warranty, insurers typically cover all associated repair costs, as well.

Pricey Parts
Anyone who's paid out-of-pocket for wheelchair repairs knows that replacement components not covered by warranty can prove exceptionally pricey, especially when it comes to powerchair components.  However, providers have multiple parts sources, from new OEM replacement components, to new and refurbished components sold by aftermarket distributors.  For costly components that must be paid out-of-pocket, it's wise to speak with the servicing provider regarding price quotes from both OEM and aftermarket distributors to see which is the least-costly parts alternative.

The Time It Takes
Every day without appropriate mobility can prove a day lost, so prompt wheelchair repair is crucial.  Unfortunately, wheelchair repair cycles are often dictated by many factors that can delay even the most simple of repairs.  When an issue arises, and the user needs the provider to pickup the wheelchair for service,  the provider must schedule a pickup, which may not be the same day as the call is received.  Once the wheelchair is in the shop for repair, it may fall in line behind other units, delaying diagnostics needed to determine the issue.  And, in some funding situations, the provider must obtain approval from the insurer before servicing the wheelchair, which can also delay the repair.

Larger providers often stock commonly needed components, which expedite repairs.   However, for more serious issues, parts may need ordering from the manufacturer.  Manufacturers have exclusive parts shipping departments intended to ship parts as quickly as possible, often the same day as they're ordered.  Still, obscure components and components for discontinued models can take longer to ship than routine parts, taking the manufacturer a week or more to source and ship them.

All of these factors of time come into play when obtaining service of a wheelchair, where even the slightest service can take several days. For this reason, it's important to maintain a back-up wheelchair for when needed, as well as try to assess a provider's ability to service the products they sell before purchasing a wheelchair through them, judging their abilities based on the service facility, staff, and track record expressed by other consumers.

When Things Go Really Wrong
There are thousands of mobility providers in the U.S., and not all are the shinning stars of business and customer service that one hopes.  In instances where providers don't live up to their responsabilities, consumers have options.  Firstly, many consumers have the option of changing providers at any time, where they can have their wheelchairs serviced at a different provider than the one who made the original sale.  It is true that some insurers contract with certain providers, so one has no ability to switch, and some providers are reluctant to perform warranty work on  wheelchairs that they didn't sell, where they see service as less profitable than sales, only wishing to service the products that they originally sold.  However, many providers welcome service-related business, and are accustomed to filling out the paper work required by insurers, including Medicare, to perform service on a wheelchair purchased elsewhere.

Secondly, if a consumer can't change providers, either because of insurance restrictions or based on scarcity in a region, and desperately needs service, he or she should contact the wheelchair manufacturer directly to explain the situation.  Specifically, most manufacturers have "customer care" representatives trained to work directly with end users via the telephone to help resolve such situations.  In their roles, customer care representatives contact the provider to obtain all perspectives, and determine how to best resolve the situation.  Often a customer care representative is successful in getting the consumer and provider to both understand what's needed to resolve the issue, and other times, the representative arranges for alternative field support.  It's important to note that customer care representatives do not handle routine service calls or provide technical support, and are only involved in legitimately challenging situations - that is, consumers should only call them if the situation warrants true need.

In the world of wheelchair repairs, the good news is that dramatic improvements have been made in overall product durability and reliability, driven by increasingly stringent test standard and high product expectations by consumers and providers, where the products of today are less likely to need repair than those of past generations.  Yet, in the real world, with physical realities - and some might say, curses! - at play, issues still arise.  Even before a purchase, it's ideal to try to determine how effectively your new wheelchair will be serviced by the provider, and know what moves to make when things go wrong.

Afterword
With 24 hours in each day, and 7 days in a week, there's a good chance that if an issue arises with your wheelchair, it won't be during providers' business hours - especially when your wheelchair obeys Murphy's Law. Over the years, the WheelchairJunkie.com message board and my email, which I run around the clock, have proven quick solutions for many users to get their wheelchairs running again during an evening or weekend when the issue was simple, as in a joystick error code pointing to a loose connection or such.  Like a AAA cyber card for your wheelchair, don't hesitate to utilize the resources of WheelchairJunkie.com after hours to possibly solve your mobility issue in a pinch.  The community and I are always here to help.  -Mark

Published 1/07, Copyright 2007, WheelchairJunkie.com