For Kline one of the biggest changes by far has been the wide selection of wheelchair equipment that is now available at more affordable prices, although somewhat surprisingly people think the chairs have become more expensive, he said. And, for an industry beset with challenges, the roll out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) brings up a whole new set of tasks with Kline pointing out that it is almost impossible for anyone to predict what the scheme will look like when it is completely up and running.
The modern wheelchair of today is not just designed to go from A to B. Thanks to the latest technologies these models allow people to interact totally within the community – whether it is sitting in a bar to riding across a paddock. Kline said elevated chairs are very popular as it brings people to eye level in social situations. Like power tilt and pressure relief, these features were unheard of 25 years ago. “The electronics on these machines are brilliant allowing you to control your surroundings from the wheelchair – switching lights on, working on a computer, answering the smartphone. All this and more can be accomplished from the chair and with it greater independence. In the late 70s all we could offer was a folding wheelchair with a motor that cost $5000. The same product now sells for $1800. There were about three brands on the market then and I reckon there are 15 out there today so choice is huge with endless options for powered wheelchairs.”
Kline is not the first to admit that this is a very hard industry to make a dollar however, he said, industry comparisons with overseas pricing estimate that local prices are on average 14 per cent below OECD costs. “Equipment is expensive and the distribution process to get it to market here adds to the overall cost. The majority of products we sell have to be custom built. We send an occupational therapist out to measure the client. Sometimes you can nail that in a single visit but our record is 10 visits to secure the best solution for the individual. That’s where a lot of the costs go. And the procurement bodies don’t know that these value-add exist. Part of the problem the industry faces is getting the message across that there is a huge value-add to what we do.
“Under the current system in NSW if you want government funding for a piece of equipment it can take up to two years before that happens. So when you do get the order you have to go back and remeasure the client because people change over time. With the NDIS trials we have done in Newcastle to date, once the client has decided on a piece of equipment the order is placed within six weeks. We don’t have to remeasure and we can supply equipment to the client within eight weeks. With some of these clients we have sourced products from seven different companies to get the best outcome. On the other end of the scale, if you just need a manual wheelchair to take Mum shopping, then a low cost standard chair can be sourced from your local pharmacy. For people sitting in a wheelchair all day an occupational therapist would normally be involved to ensure the correct solution.”
When it comes to the NDIS, Kline said it is all about control and choice and that is the guiding principle. “On the other side of the equation are the funding bodies who are looking at the sustainability and bulk procurement and getting the greatest value for money. This I believe will reduce choice and control. “There are discussion papers out at the moment but no-one knows which side it is going to fall on. In my experience, and this is not coming from a business perspective, I hope it falls on choice and control because it is something people with disability have not had for a long time. And if the purchasing procurement body wants to put everyone into one box, that box is not going to suit everyone.
“In theory the NDIS is going to be good for clients depending on which way the government hops with its funding. It’s going to happen, no doubt about that, but how it is going to look is the big question. The NDIS is running pilots with different demographics for each state and territory with the plan to extract the best bits and try to shape a system that will suit nationally. Some people will like it and others will prefer to get others to make the decision for them.”
Asked what the industry has meant for him and Kline is reflective: “Up until two years ago I was out in the community selling wheelchairs. I liked seeing the end result which is a happy customer because there is a big emotional content in what we do and our team get a lot of satisfaction out of doing this. We are all committed to getting the best outcome for the client and I think that applies to the majority of suppliers who are here today.”
On the Kline wish list would be a greater financial commitment from government to avoid people waiting up to 18 months for a piece of equipment. “Hopefully the NDIS will change that if they have done their sums right but there is lot of demand out there the government does not realise exists. “We still find people who are unaware that there is a state government funding scheme. When the NDIS is up and running there will be a lot people in the community who will be entitled to these services.”