“I need a wheelchair, and I can’t get one through my insurance. Can you help me?”
I’m sure a lot of us have heard that statement throughout the years. In many cases, the answer unfortunately has to be, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
Well — not so fast. Actually, there is something we can do.
Under the Assistive Technology Act, all states are now required to have some kind of assistive device reutilization effort. That is the long way of saying each state is supposed to have a program that reuses durable medical equipment and assistive devices.
Into new hands
Here in Pittsburgh, the Assistive Technology Department of the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living (TRCIL) was ahead of the curve. About 15 years ago, the Center started what it calls Into New Hands. The program accepts donations of used, but still serviceable, durable medical equipment and assistive technology devices. In exchange, TRCIL provides a tax receipt for the value the donor places on these items. Into New Hands accepts the devices, inspects and cleans the equipment, and does minor refurbishing. Once the equipment passes inspection, it is made available to individuals who need equipment, but who are otherwise unable to obtain it.
A small service fee is attached to each device: $10 for nonpowered items and $30 for things like power wheelchairs and up-lift recliners. The service fees are rolled back into the program to help refurbish donated devices. Upon receiving the device, the consumer is asked to fill out a short form, which includes a hold-harmless agreement. This agreement lets the recipient know the device is used, that there are no guarantees or warrantees attached to the equipment, and that they are taking full responsibility for the care and maintenance of the device.
Aside from providing needed equipment to people who would otherwise have to do without, device reuse is good for the environment, since it keeps used medical devices out of landfills.
Device reuse also helps save on already limited assistive technology budgets and waiver program money by providing devices for free or at a minor cost, leaving the bulk of those funds available to purchase replacement batteries and other spare parts.
Each individual state will have its own set of guidelines on what can and cannot be reused. Into New Hands, for example, handles durable medical equipment, assistive technology devices and disposable medical supplies (incontinence supplies, catheter supplies and so on). But we do not handle such things as CPAP or BiPAP machines or anything else which requires a physician’s supervision. Items, which we cannot use directly, are usually donated to organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Global Links and overseas medical missions conducted by local churches.
Into New Hands has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to send durable medical equipment to replace devices lost to the storms. A large amount of equipment also was sent to Haiti following the earthquake there. Throughout the years, Into New Hands has distributed an average of 165 devices per year, at an average savings to the consumer of $418 (average total of $69,030 per year).
Those are the cold, hard facts about the program. The heart of the matter is far simpler. If we, as disability advocates, truly want people to live self-directed lives in their own homes, then device reuse programs are just the right thing to do.
I can attest personally to the good such programs do. A few years ago, Into New Hands was given a large donation of manual wheelchairs and parts for manual wheelchairs by a local vendor. The last remaining chair was an absolute monster. It was a sports chair. The frame was electric pink, the seat and back were black nylon and the push-rims were blue-grey. One footrest was green, the other was purple, and nothing matched anything else. The thing sat in our storerooms for quite some time until we received a call from a woman who had suffered an injury and subsequently lost her insurance and the chair the insurance was providing. She called us desperate for any assistance. When I described the chair to her, she shot back, “I’ll take it.”
A few days later, she and her husband came in to pick up the ugly wheelchair. And suddenly, the chair wasn’t so ugly. It was the perfect fit at the perfect time. As we rode back up the elevator together, I got the nicest fee for a free wheelchair in my 12-year career. She grabbed me by the wrist, dragged me down and gave me a big hug.
Of the dozens of “success stories” Into New Hands has collected throughout the years, this still remains my favorite. And, that story illustrates in clear, human terms the benefits of device reuse.
It is true, device reuse programs can be time-consuming, and sometimes demand quite a bit of floor space in terms of workshops and storerooms. However, the benefits of getting needed equipment into the hands of those who need — but cannot otherwise afford — those devices far outweigh the costs.
For more information
To learn more about recycling assistive and durable medical devices, or if you are a person with a disability who needs assistance obtaining these devices, contact your state’s assistive technology program or your local center for independent living (CIL).
Originally published April 19, 2013.