Manitoba

Manitoba wheelchair program services must move forward, critics say

Long wait times, limited resources when it comes to picking up chairs for repair and restrictive policies surrounding technicians have critics calling a provincially funded wheelchair program inefficient.

Applicants face a drawn-out process before they're green-lighted for a chair

"It feels like [Manitoba's wheelchair services program] would rather say 'no' than 'yes,'" said Danielle Otto, who is raising money to buy her own custom wheelchair. (CBC)

A provincially funded wheelchair program is inefficient, too rigid and not meeting the needs of those who rely on it, critics say.

But while today, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority — which helps run the program — refuses to comment on those claims, a few years ago they came to the same conclusion.

"Believe me, it's nothing new," says Peter Tonge, a Winnipeg lawyer who's waited almost six weeks for them to pick up and repair his broken chair.

"I actually had a call that said…. 'Can you bring your broken chair with you? So we don't have to come and get it.' I was flabbergasted."

Manitoba's wheelchair services program is offered through the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities, and contracted through the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Very simply, it loans out and services wheelchairs to Manitobans who need them.

But for years, critics say, the service has been flawed. Applicants face a drawn-out process, sometimes years, before they're green-lighted for a chair.

"[They] have their own full-time occupational therapist whose entire function is to receive those application forms from the therapists acting on behalf of the individuals and police them and find reasons to deny them," said Winnipegger Danielle Otto, who is raising money to buy her own custom wheelchair.

"It feels like they'd rather say no than yes."

And if you are approved, there are just a handful of basic chairs to chose from, through just one manufacturer. That could mean, said both Otto and Tonge, that one may not get a chair that suits one's specific needs. Any finessing, any special features you may need, you'll have to cover yourself.

Repair waits also a concern

Another concern raised by the wheelchair clients CBC News spoke to? Repair wait times.

Wheelchair services chairs must be repaired by their own technicians, even if it's a customized part that the client paid for out of pocket. Even if they're so backlogged, it could take months to repair.

And if one lives outside of Winnipeg, it can be more challenging because they don't pick up chairs for repair beyond the Perimeter Highway. You have to find a way to get it to them.

Even if the WRHA would not comment on the problems,  they're well aware of them. Back in 2007 and 2008, an internal review spelled them out.

"Challenges with the current supply system … inefficiencies … limitations on type of wheelchairs available" and wait times "from four months to three years," according to its internal documents.

The WRHA even struck a committee to deal with it.

The idea? Streamline the process for the really complex clients, the ones who needed the highly specialized chairs. Give them one service provider: a one-stop shop where they'd have a choice of approved wheelchair distributors who would work with them and their doctors, one on one, from beginning to end.

That was in September 2008. 

"Doing this would not require a tax increase, or a referendum, or the creation of a new program," Otto noted. "There isn't even any proof … changing this system would require more money."

'No other options'

In fact, private suppliers said it might save them money, since there would not be a monopoly on the market.

"Right now, there's no incentive for anyone to improve service or reduce costs because where else will someone go?" said Bruce Isaak, co-owner of Winnipeg Custom Seating, which sells and services wheelchairs.

"There are no other options."

David Steen, the chief executive officer for the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities, would not comment on the WRHA report or the earlier plans to implement changes.

The program provides wheelchairs for close to 8,000 Manitobans. So while it's not problem-free, Steen said it's a service he is proud of.

The CBC contacted the province, which provides funding for the program.

The health minister's office issued a statement saying, "The province has received complaints in the past, and will continue to work with SMD and the region to address the concerns individuals bring forward."

As for these concerns, people like Danielle Otto and Peter Tonge say they're not superficial.

The right — or wrong — wheelchair can mean the difference, they said, between getting to work and living independently, to being housebound and living on social assistance.


Hear more of Donna Carreiro's report at 7:50 a.m. on Information Radio with host Marcy Markusa on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM / 990 AM.

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