Refurbished Walkers and Wheelchairs Fill Gaps Created by Supply Chain Problems

Yves here. The headline of this story masks the real issue: scarcity of walkers, crutches, and other “assistive” devices thanks to aluminum shortages. We warned this was coming in late 2021. IM Doc’s hospital was already having trouble getting aluminum crutches and his contacts warned it would get worse. And this was way before anyone thought a war with major aluminum supplier Russia was in the offing.

By Kate Ruder. Originally published at Kaiser Health News

Michele Lujan needed a wheelchair for her 52-year-old husband who had been hospitalized with covid-19. But she had lost her job, and money was tight. Insurance wouldn’t cover the cost, and she didn’t see the use in buying something to meet a temporary need. So she turned to a loan closet not far from her home in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch.

At South Metro Medical Equipment Loan Closet, crutches hung from the walls, knee scooters lined the floor, and shower seats and toilet risers overflowed from the shelves. She found a wheelchair she could borrow for free.

“I didn’t realize all the other medical items they have,” Lujan said.

Medical equipment reuse programs like these collect, clean, and lend devices — often at no cost to the borrower. They vary in size from small outposts at community churches to large statewide programs like the Foundation for Rehabilitation Equipment and Endowment, or FREE, which provided nearly 5,000 devices to thousands of low-income adults and seniors in Virginia last year.

Such programs save low-income and uninsured patients money, and by refurbishing used medical equipment, they keep it out of landfills. During the pandemic, the programs have also helped soften the impact of supply chain-related shortages and are helping meet increased demand as delayed elective surgeries resume.

“Once hospitals started elective surgeries again, there was a huge increase in need,” said Donna Ralston, who founded the South Metro Medical Equipment Loan Closet six years ago in a 10-feet-by-10-feet shed at her church.

Today, the volunteer-run organization opens its warehouse doors by appointment to anyone who is in need and recovering from surgery, illness, or injury. “Oftentimes, we’re loaning equipment to patients who would otherwise have to wait two months to get it from their insurance providers,” said the organization’s president, Pat Benhmida. “We fill in these cracks quite often.”

Besides insurance delays, hospitals across the U.S. have reported not having enough walkers, crutches, canes, and wheelchairs. Supplies are limited because of shortages of raw materials such as aluminum, said Alok Baveja, a professor of supply chain management at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.

“The availability, not just the cost, has an impact on the durable medical equipment industry,” Baveja said.

The crunch may be made worse by disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said American Hospital Association spokesperson Colin Milligan.

Aluminum prices have more than doubled in the past two years, including more than 20% over the past six months on the London Metal Exchange. A bill that passed Congress April 7 to suspend normal trade relations with Russia will allow President Joe Biden to raise tariffs on aluminum and other imports from that country, increasing aluminum prices even more.

Baveja said one silver lining of the pandemic is that reused medical equipment has gained greater acceptance and use.

Last September and again in January, southwestern Virginia hospitals delayed discharging patients because of shortages of walkers and bedside commodes, and they experienced backlogs of patients in the emergency room because of a shortage of hospital beds, said Robin Ramsey, executive director of FREE, a nonprofit organization.

Ramsey said that for weeks, FREE was the only provider that had walkers and bedside commodes readily on hand. “During the shortage, we found that even people with insurance, who could have purchased a walker, just couldn’t find one,” Ramsey said.

Each state receives money to provide technology to help people with disabilities as part of the federal Assistive Technology Act of 1998. That can include reusable technology and equipment. Reuse programs rely on cash and equipment donations, and often an army of volunteers who inspect, sanitize, and repair wheels, brakes, casters, batteries, and other parts.

AT FREE, more than 100 volunteers and 12 staffers last year received 10,000 pieces of donated equipment, and refurbished 6,500 to put back into use, Ramsey said.

Elliot Sloyer, founder of a Stamford, Connecticut, nonprofit called Wheel It Forward, said patients and their families often pay out-of-pocket for durable medical equipment, especially with high-deductible health insurance plans. “Medicare, insurance don’t cover a lot of stuff. They make it difficult,” he said.

Medical equipment reuse programs provide significant, practical value to communities, said Ramsey. But, she said, some people have no idea these programs exist until they need them.

Regional directories such as the Great Lakes Loan Closets list reuse programs in Michigan, Wisconsin, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois. Wheel It Forward plans to launch the first nationwide directory of about 700 medical equipment reuse programs.

For now, reuse programs like FREE will continue to stockpile and repair donated medical equipment.

“There are times, especially with all that’s gone on in the last two years, that equipment comes in and goes out the same day,” Ramsey said. “The need has been so great.”

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  1. The Rev Kev

    At least attitudes are changing here. About twenty years ago here in Oz this guy had a bright idea. Hospitals were getting rid of old hospital beds and were replacing them with newer models so this guy had the idea of getting them and shipping them to Pacific nations where such simple things can be in short supply. I mean, it is not like a lot can go wrong with them even if old and they don’t need firmware or software upgrades so this was a win-win solution for the hospitals wanting to get rid of the older beds and hospitals in some nations getting extra capacity. It was the Federal government that stopped this idea cold. They told him that only money can get shipped to those Pacific nations and not things like hospital gear. I drew my own conclusions why this was so.

  2. Dikaios Logos

    I have an elderly parent who suffered a fall just under three months ago. That parent has a formal relationship with one of the country’s top 5 ranked hospitals/systems. In the past three months it has gotten harder and harder to find my parent a wheelchair at their various locations, it’s like they are all disappearing. And they were mostly older models in the first place.

    Perhaps wheelchairs have joined catalytic converters as valuable targets for threft from the growing economic precarious population?

  3. ambrit

    Here, in the North American Deep South, the secondary sources of used medical equipment are the various thrift shops. After an eye opening experience just after Phyl’s amputation, where, after Phyl made fun of me for saying that we would need money to ‘release’ some crutches from the stickey fingers of the local medical devices company, and exactly that happened, at her bedside in the short term rehab wing of the hospital, we sourced all other medical devices from the thrift shops. We only had to wait for a week for one particular item to come in to the “post estate sale” venues. All else was available when we looked. I did our own “refurbishing” in the back yard with a bucket, soap, a rag, and the garden hose. Dry it off and re-oil the moving parts and voila!, ready to go.
    Medicare only covers 80% of Durable Medical Equipment, after the Part B Deductable is met.
    Nickle and dime, nickle and dime. That’s how we ‘winnow’ out the deplorables here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
    Stay safe! Think for yourself.

  4. Dave in Austin

    This article promped me to email a friend who’s wheelchair-using wife died 10 days ago. I’d encourage others to do the same.

  5. Carla

    Hhhmmm… wondering if I should start stockpiling the aluminum cans littering our streets and tree lawns that I now pick up and bring home to rinse out and recycle. Maybe they’d have a buyer at some point?

  6. kareninca

    Our local Presbyterian church has had such a closet for at least 20 years. I knew a lady from the church – she has since passed away – who was often out and about bringing items to people who had just been discharged from the hospital, who could not afford to buy these things.

    It is not just a matter of money. My family was in desperate straits when my dad was hospitalized. My mother had given her CPAP to my mentally ill brother (who has since died). He needed one to survive, but was not willing to go through the medical steps to get one. She needed hers, too, in order to be able to sleep so she could tend my father, who was dying. But she couldn’t get another one, due to the steps required. We were just too overwhelmed by the minute to minute tasks of helping the nurses with my dad, to try to do anything of that sort.

    One of her neighbors, who is a retired engineer who belongs to a large evangelical church, came to visit my (atheist) father in the recovery home. I told him of our problem. He went home and refurbished one of his old ones for my mom; that can be safely done. It was the greatest act of kindness you can imagine.

  7. Ted A.

    Here in Santa Barbara we have had a loan closet for many decades. I didn’t realize it was a national program until I read this – thank you. it’s a real service and valuable to people of all economic ranks. it’s interesting how an Aluminum shortage will have all sorts of implications that one doesn’t normally think of initially. I am sure there are others.

  8. Ana

    Wow. Tomorrow I will purchase a new bath bench I need since they are mostly aluminum. I have two wheelchairs and will keep them running.

    Speaking as a person who has to have mobility devices, this is scary but very important news. Thank you, and I will pass the word within the disabled community here in Sacramento.


  9. sd

    Shout out to the The Convalescent Aid Society of Pasadena – such a service should be everywhere. The only item they charge for is a new mattress when ordering a bed.

    And they accept donations of used equipment when you no longer need it.

  10. Vthestate

    In an alternative free, humane world …. profit takes a back seat to utility. Corporations are charged with a primary responsibility to serve their community and the chance for life in the future. Government is not co-opted to maximize corporate gain..things are produced and distributed with integrity. Nothing that is still working well is trash. The many walkers, shower benches, wheel chairs, canes….etc I have salvaged and included in the lending library of medical equipment here in CT is approaching 50 items. Little or no main stream info is broadcast or promoted. Nothing on the topic from elected folks. It hurts to see so much stuff made cheap and no or little value placed in things well made.

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