As the Wheel Turns

Dont Get Taken for a Ride!

by Kathy Wechsler

Would you go to your librarian for a root canal just because he or she may have read up on dentistry? Would you ask Picasso to paint your house?  Or order a steak from a street hot dog vendor?

Probably not. Then why should you buy a wheelchair from someone whos not qualified?

With some help from Darren Jernigan, director of government affairs for Permobils U.S. headquarters in Lebanon, Tenn., the Consumer Protection Act for Wheeled Mobility was signed by Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredeson in May 2003. The Act kicked in this July 1.

Defending the Consumer

Maureen McGovern  

Designed to protect the consumer and prevent fraud by unethical dealers, the Consumer Protection Act requires providers of new wheelchairs to have at least one staff member whos qualified to evaluate and supply a chair. The law also should save the state millions of Medicaid dollars annually, Jernigan said.

As of July 1, every provider in Tennessee must meet the minimum qualifications in order to sell power chairs and one type of manual wheelchair: One member of the staff must have been in the field for at least a year, have 15 hours of continuing education and obtain three recommendations from someone in the field.

Beginning in 2007, one staff member must be certified by the Rehabilitation Engineering Society of North America (RESNA). The Health Care Licensing Facilities agency of the state Department of Health will undertake regulation of the law.

These requirements are meant as an introductory [step] to certification and are in place to ramp up to the RESNA certification obligations required by July 1, 2007, Jernigan said.

Other states are beginning to set regulations for wheelchair sellers, but meanwhile buyers should protect themselves.  Dont buy a wheelchair from any old clown.  

A provider whos not qualified might sell you a chair that isnt suitable for you. And the wrong chair can be a pain in the rear, literally. Theres a potential to develop ulcers on your backside.

Theres a case in Virginia where an individual on Monday had a muffler shop and then by Wednesday, he already had a Medicare number and was selling wheelchairs out of the same shop, said Jernigan, who uses a wheelchair because of quadriplegia. [The Act] will prevent this from happening.

To be covered by Tennessees new law, a consumer must have the wheelchair prescribed by a physician, and it must be intended for long-term use. (If you break your leg and need a wheelchair for a short while, the provider who rents you a chair doesnt need to be certified.) The main goal of the legislation is to protect people with chronic conditions such as muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury.

Jernigan knows personally what painful problems are caused when a person is placed in an inappropriate chair, and he doesnt want anyone to have to go through that.

There are lemon laws in some states [see Sour Taste,], but that has to do with the actual malfunction of the chair, he said. Right now, if you get sold a chair thats not appropriate for you and you dont realize that its not appropriate for you until its too late, theres not anything you can do.  This is the reason the bill is so important.

Time for a Change

Larry Jackson, president of wheelchair manufacturer Permobil,  wanted to see some professionalism brought to the field of durable equipment sales.  An in-house lobbyist with two years at Permobil, Jernigan suggested a way to both stand up for the consumer and professionalize the industry by proposing a bill to the Tennessee Legislature to save consumers money and eliminate fraud.

If we couldnt get it passed here where Permobil is located, itd be very difficult to pass anywhere in the country, Jernigan said of the Consumer Protection Act.

Drafting the language took the skills and talents of Permobils government affairs team and experts from Nashvilles Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Both Permobils Jernigan and Vanderbilts Jenny Robison, a physical therapist in the Department of Neurology who works with the Vanderbilt MDA clinic, played important roles in drafting, introducing and passing the bill.

Permobil hired a lobbyist to assist with the political aspects.  With the support of organizations dealing with disabilities, Robison (whos also an assistive technology proprietor certified by RESNA) and Jernigans team confronted each legislator with a proposal. Physical and occupational therapists testified in legislative hearings on behalf of the team, confirming that being placed in the wrong wheelchair causes severe physical harm.

We showed a document that one skin ulcer can cost the state up to $360,000 to fix, said Jernigan, who used his seven years as a lobbyist to help get things done. We showed examples of fraud. Legislators really got the point that one size no longer fits all when youre talking about wheelchairs.

Follow the Leader

Tennessee is the only state in the country that has this particular law, said Jernigan, but Georgia and Alabama have similar Medicaid policies regarding wheeled mobility systems. With an extra boost from Permobil, passage of similar laws is pending in five states.

Right now, we have a bill in the Missouri, California, Maryland, Illinois and Florida legislatures, said Jernigan. Virginia and Colorado legislatures tabled theirs for the next session, which will be next year, as well as Minnesota.

Jernigan and his crew plan to travel to these states and provide legislators with information about the proposed Consumer Protection Act.

Several things have to fall into place for the Act to become national, said Jernigan. The legislation would already have to be in place in 10 to 12 states.

Then, wed probably have to make sure that there were no national organizations against the bill, Jernigan said. A compromise to eliminate opposition would be necessary.

If we were to secure those two things, I think we could probably get it to fly right through Congress.

Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

It only takes one person to introduce the bill to a state legislator, said Jernigan.

The legislation is out there.  They dont have to rewrite it, they dont have to redo it, he said.  

To get your state involved, all you have to do is contact your state legislator. Type an e-mail, write a letter or make a phone call all easy ways to make it known that something needs to be done.

Once youve laid the groundwork, the meeting with your legislator should be face-to-face, said Jernigan. You can show them a copy of  Tennessees  bill, which you can get from Jernigan by calling (800) 736-0925 or e-mailing Or go to

You introduce it and say, This is something Id like to have done in my state, said Jernigan. Nine times out of 10, your personal representative will end up sponsoring that bill.  Its that easy as far as getting it introduced.

Getting it passed, on the other hand, may take a little more work. Youll need to garner support from local providers, other people with disabilities, local disability organizations and even the supplier that sold you your wheelchair.

There may be opposition or may not.  But, its definitely very feasible to do, he said. It will take some work, take a little bit of passion.  They can make the change and get it done.

Leaving a Sour Taste in Your Mouth

  Dr. Appel  

Almost every state has a law protecting a person from being stuck with a wheelchair thats a lemon. Some states, such as Ohio, have lemon laws that include way more than wheelchairs.

Motorized scooters, environmental controls, adaptive transportation aids, listening devices, voice-synthesized computer modules, optical scanners, talking software and Braille printers are also protected under Ohios Assistive Device Lemon Law, which was adopted in the early 1990s.

If you purchase a wheelchair or other device that turns out to be defective, the first thing to do is contact the manufacturer directly. If the manufacturer isnt responsive, you may need to see a consumer law attorney. This is where the lemon laws come in.

The purpose of lemon laws is to protect the buyer of a new or used wheelchair or assistive device while its still under warranty. Ohios lemon law says that if an assistive device is taken in for repair three or more times for the same defect, the consumer can either get a replacement device or a refund. The same rules apply for an assistive device thats out of service 45 days or more within the warranty period.  In addition, if a repair exceeds 21 days, a loan device must be provided.

I think these laws are important because they make it possible for people who depend on those devices to get through life and perform their basic functions, said Courtney Caparella, an attorney at Burdge Law Office in Dayton, Ohio. Lemon laws kind of put a limit on how much grief you have to take.

To find out about the wheelchair lemon law in your state, visit


Resource List

National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology
(202) 776-0652

National Conference of State Legislatures

National Registry of Rehabilitation Technology Suppliers
(512) 267-6832

National Rehab Network
(800) 825-5633

Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America
(703) 524-6686