Aid program marred by wheelchair 'ripoff'

This article was originally published in the Toronto Sun on December 20th, 2009. To view their webpage, please Click Here

Refurbished wheelchairs for palliative-care patients who will never use them. Cushions that cost $460 but need to be replaced because they cause bedsores. An 80% markup for wheelchair vendors who are often closely associated with the doctors and therapists prescribing them.

These are just a few of the problems rampant in the program that helps the chronically ill and elderly get wheelchairs in Ontario — a $347-million-a-year cash cow that Auditor General Jim McCarter says is getting milked of scarce health-care funds.

“These people just take the government for everything they’re worth,” said Ken Beliwicz, who was told he had to pay one-quarter of the $1,000 cost of refurbishing his mother’s wheelchair earlier this year.

“It just boggles the mind because it’s almost carte blanche.”

Beliwicz lives in Barrie where his mother had been in a nursing home for 17 years before her death this spring.

She was bedridden in the months before her death but staff at the nursing home urged Beliwicz to send her wheelchair for repairs and new cushions.

“They did all the arrangements and I just paid the $50 inspection fee,” he said.

“All of a sudden I get a bill and it’s over a thousand bucks and they want me to pay $250 and the government’s going to pay the rest.

“When I balked, I said. ‘Look. If I had known it was going to cost a thousand bucks I probably wouldn’t have done it, and I wouldn’t have wasted the government’s money either.’ “

But despite his refusal to pay, the repairs were already done. His mother died without ever using the wheelchair again and it now sits in Beliwicz’s garage.

“Nobody will take it,” he said. “My next resort is to take it to the Legion and see if anyone needs a lift in or out.”

It’s a familiar story for McCarter, whose annual report earlier this month found the Assistive Devices Program to be riddled with inflated prices, conflicts of interest and wasteful practices — including a refusal to recycle wheelchairs, which can cost $5,000 for a basic model.

“That’s exactly our issue,” he said. “We just think froma a value-for-money point of view and an environmental point of view you should look at recycling. Other provinces do that and you could at least look into it.”

Alberta and Quebec both recycle wheelchairs through government programs and report they save $5 million A $4 million a year respectively.

Ontario doesn’t — it won’t even fund used manual wheelchair purchases.

The result is that non-profit organizations are getting flooded with unwanted, used wheelchairs — some of which are being donated to other countries just to get rid of them.

“If someone comes to you and says you can buy a used wheelchair for $1,000 and you have to pay $250 or you can buy a brand new wheelchair at $5,000 and your share is $2,500, I know what I’d buy,” McCarter said, adding the ministry has told him it is hesitant to recycle chairs because of liability concerns.