Is Our Mobility in the Hands of Investors?

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on June 14, 2022 # Lifestyle

moneyMy life depends on mobility products. Up until four years ago, in my 53rd year as a para, I was able to transfer directly from my manual chair to my car or stock minivan. I was fortunate to have the use of my arms and hands and only needed hand controls installed. Now that I’m older, I need help with transfers. I can’t afford a used van with a lift, so I bought a new remote-controlled Bruno Turny seat and had it installed on the passenger side — (I get in and then slide behind the wheel) of my well-used minivan. The seat cost almost 10k out of pocket, more than the car’s worth. With no bus service where I live and no Voc Rehab or government benefits help, I had to pay the piper.

The seat started shorting out briefly, but still worked fine. Then one day, it quit in mid-cycle. I was still in the Turny seat, halfway out the passenger side, legs dangling in mid-air. I made calls on my cell and got help from my wife. The next day she took my minivan into the nearest adaptive van dealer to have the seat fixed, which they did. It worked fine, said the technician, so home it came the same day. The next day it stalled again and would no longer respond.

The technician came out to my home, tried to fix it, failed, ran codes, scratched his head, went back to the dealer and made calls to Bruno, the manufacturer, and Braunability, the company that took over Bruno. I was told I needed a new wiring harness. But no one had one anywhere. Braunability had discontinued Bruno’s Turny seat, and no one kept parts. I was told I had no choice but to buy a different model from Braunability. What!!!? Another 10k? For an electrical problem? It was less than four years old, and might need only one wire fixed!

I talked the technician into trying to fix the seat at his home on his own time, not company time. My wife drove my minivan there and left it with him for a weekend. It took him all of two hours to trace the problem, find the wire and solder it back together. Problem fixed. I paid $150 for his time instead of $10,000 to the adaptive van dealer and Braunability.

Why do so many companies enforce policies to sell new equipment instead of fixing existing products? It’s because those companies are part of a large chain of companies that are owned by distant holding companies that are beholden primarily to their investors. Those holding companies buy up other companies for one reason only, to make more profit. Customer service is secondary, at best.

And it’s happening all over the healthcare industry, which includes durable medical equipment and “specialty” businesses which have a fixed, yet growing customer base that has nowhere else to buy the products they — we — need.

Here’s how it is happening: Braunability, the nation’s leading adaptive van business, was started by Ralph Braun, who had muscular dystrophy as a child. He invented not only the first battery-powered scooter, but also the first wheelchair lift. He would do anything it took to serve others like himself. A true pioneer. But Braun died in 2013. Today customer-first service is dying as well.

Braunability is now owned by Patricia Industries, which is owned by InvestorAB, a behemoth industrial holding company based in Stockholm. InvestorAB is just that — Anonymous Bodies — investors who don’t know a wheelchair lift from a wheelbarrow. All they want is a profitable investment, and they are raking in the dough. The investors are profiting at the expense of the “end-users” — you and me. InvestorAB also owns Permobil, which owns TiLite and ROHO, the leading wheelchair and wheelchair cushion businesses. And InvestorAB’s Patricia Industries also owns Laborie, which sells disposable catheters, and Molnlycke, which makes wound care products.

Here are the products that are absolutely indispensable for me at this time, and I’m guessing at least some of them are on your can’t-do-without list. My Turny car seat that enables me to drive. My indispensable wheelchair, a Ti-Lite manual. My ROHO cushion, critically needed to avoid another flap surgery. A number of wound care products to keep skin breakdowns and infections at bay. And catheters, also critical to my health. My life would be a living hell without these products.

Right now, one my biggest fears are that a global economic crisis will decimate the major holding companies and their affiliates, and I would lose my lifeline to many or all of the mobility and healthcare products I need. My life as a paralyzed wheelchair user is in the hands of anonymous investors who sell their shares when they get nervous, or their bottom line begins to suffer. My daily mobility and healthcare needs are not their concern.

Does that make me an investor-owned consumer?

If an economic crisis happens, we will feel the pinch. Some of us could get caught up in a very real quality-of-life crisis. What will we do? This isn’t just about InvestorAB. The trend of small companies being taken over by larger companies is very well established, and the more it plays out, the less influence individual consumers have. As of now, I have no good answers, but I know that more than ever, we need each other. We need to consolidate our numbers and our power. And we need to speak out forcefully as a united community and advocate for our needs.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

This post is purely educational for our community readers. The Reeve Foundation does not endorse these products. These opinions are that of the blogger.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.