National Press Club

Veterans Push for Legislation to Cut Cost of High-tech Wheelchairs

May 19, 2009 | By Mark Schoeff Jr.

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Veterans groups and the inventor of the Segway scooter urged Congress to pass legislation that would make a high-tech mobilized wheelchair more affordable for wounded veterans and other paralyzed Americans at a May 14 Newsmaker.

The iBOT, a mobile powered wheel chair, has gone out of production because Medicare is reimbursing purchases at the same rate as other kinds of wheelchairs. With a price tag of about $22,000, that puts the iBOT out of the reach of most people in the market for the device, they said.

One of them of who uses one is Gary Linfoot, a helicopter pilot who provided air support for special operations forces in Iraq. Linfoot was injured in the country in 2008 in a crash that left him paralyzed.

For about six months, Linfoot has been maneuvering in an iBOT oprovided by America's Huey 901 Foundation. He testified that it is different from traditional wheelchairs because it allows him to rise to six feet and talk to people eye-to-eye, ascend stairs, negotiate curbs and travel over any kind of terrain -- including
sand and dirt.

The iBOT has also revived opportunities that seemed dead when he returned from the war.

“Suddenly, some of those doors have opened,” Linfoot said at the Newsmaker.

A civilian also praised the way the machine changed his outlook. “I felt like I was not paralyzed anymore,” said Alan Brown, a quadraplegic injured in a swimming accident nearly two decades ago. “This chair is my life.”

Brown said that the iBOT is less expensive than similar wheelchairs on the market. But without a higher government reimbursement it is still too costly for him and most of the other 1.3 million Americans with spinal cord injuries.

Dean Kamen, inventor of the iBOT as well as the Segway, is trying to convince Congress to restore a higher reimbursement for the iBOT to account for its greater technological attributes. The rate has fallen to that for typical wheelchairs -- about $2,000.

“It’s a sad story if (iBOTs) go away, but it’s not because there’s a
villain,” Kamen said. “Sometimes bad policy just happens.”

He said society has an obligation to give veterans the benefit of the best technology. “What do we owe people we’ve sent into harm’s way?”