from the Do-not-pass-go,-do-not-fix-your-essential-medical-device dept
Last week, New York State became the first state to pass right to repair legislation. The bill was the culmination of years of consumer frustration with repair monopolies, obnoxious DRM, shrinking repair access, high repair costs, and impossible to find tools, parts, and documentation. While the bill only covered some consumer electronics, activists hope it expands to additional sectors (auto, medical).
More quietly, Colorado also passed a narrow right to repair law more specifically targeting electric wheelchairs (hat tip to Cory Doctorow). Like so many sectors, electric wheelchair manufacturers have slowly carved out a monopoly over wheelchair sales and repair, making repairs expensive and difficult (by design). The problems were recently documented in a report by US PIRG:
Americans who rely on wheelchairs can be left stranded in a multi-billion-dollar market for Complex Rehabilitation Technology (CRT) like power wheelchairs—part of a $50 billion Durable Medical Equipment (DME) industry that is increasingly dominated by a handful of large, national suppliers.
Unlike traditional consumer electronics customers, America’s 3 million electric wheelchair users can find themselves stuck in bed for months when they run face-first into repair monopolies. But, like most other U.S. business sectors, the real underlying culprit is corruption, consolidation, and greed:
The multibillion-dollar power-wheelchair market is dominated by two national suppliers, Numotion and National Seating and Mobility. Both are owned by private equity firms that seek to increase profits and cut spending. One way they do that is by limiting what they spend on technicians and repairs, which, when combined with insurance and regulatory obstacles, frustrates wheelchair users seeking timely fixes.
This consolidation means less competition, so not only are chairs harder to fix, the quality is lower making them break more often. The Medicare competitive bidding process also favors these industry giants, which are capable of reaching economies of scale to win such bids by sacrificing quality and customer service. The end result is a big mess that’s easy to ignore if it doesn’t directly hurt you or somebody you love.
As with other right to repair target industries (farm equipment, medical equipment, consumer hardware, smartphones), the DMCA criminalizes folks hoping to do it themselves, and the companies involved go out of their way to restrict access to necessary parts, tools, and documentation to “authorized vendors” (usually some extension of the dominant companies).
Colorado’s new law, which, again, won’t get much attention in the NFT Elon Musk brain fart era of U.S. tech coverage, requires these manufacturers to supply parts, manuals, and unlock codes to electric wheelchair owners and independent technicians. This, in turn, will help free these wheelchair users from what Doctorow calls the “endless bureaucratic nightmares” they’re forced to inhabit.
While it’s been a grim era for consumer rights overall, the right to repair movement’s jump from niche nerd fare to the mainstream has been a breath of fresh air. And while the first round of laws are highly restrictive in terms of what’s actually covered, most of these solutions tap into such deep longstanding frustration among consumers, they’re seeing broad bipartisan support that’s only going to grow.