People are having to wait much longer to get wheelchairs in North Wales compared with those in the south, an assembly committee report says.
AMs on the health committee said ministers should end what they call the “postcode lottery” of the service.
Disability Wales’ chief executive said the wheelchair service must be “brought into the 21st Century.”
Health Minister Edwina Hart said she is already taking action to speed up the delivery of wheelchair services.
The report acknowledges inequality in wheelchair provision across Wales could be due to there only being two main Artificial Limb and Appliance Service (ALAS) centres – in Wrexham and Cardiff.
But it says such disparity is “unacceptable” and calls on the assembly government to draw up a plan to give direction to the service.
Other recommendations include better integration of wheelchair services with other services and the pooling of budgets to provide equipment for users.
Committee Chair Darren Millar AM said: “It’s clear that there are problems in many areas, including long waiting times, particularly in north Wales.
“We also heard that users with complex needs, including children, can suffer the longest waits.”
Life ‘on hold’
Wheelchair user Marion Harrison, of Hawarden, Flintshire, said she’d felt her life was “on hold” during the six months she waited for an appropriate chair, but she knew of other people who’d had to wait for 18 months or longer.
Mrs Harrison said her mother, who suffers from dementia, had been issued with the correct wheelchair within the last year, having waited for close to 10 years.
“For a ‘bog standard’ wheelchair the turnaround is very good… you get them left, right and centre because they’re the cheapest ones,” said Mrs Harrison.
“If you want a specific chair or a lightweight one this is where things become awkward and you can’t get one.
“They do not spend sufficient money to make us independent.”
Mrs Harrison added that she had worked with children with disabilities who had been very frustrated to find that by the time they were issued with a wheelchair, they had outgrown it.
Equality of access vital
Welcoming the committee’s call, chief executive of Disability Wales Rhian Davies said the wheelchair service in Wales needed to be “brought into the 21st Century”.
“The wheelchair service needs to be much more responsive, much more flexible because without a wheelchair people are stuck at home and become dependent on friends and family to support their mobility,” she added.
A coalition of nine Welsh disability organisations including Barnardo’s Cymru, Disabled Children Matter Wales and MS Society Cymru said the cross-party group of AMs had exposed real concerns about the existing service.
Minister to consider findings
A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said: “The health minister is already taking action to improve access to wheelchairs and reduce waiting times so she will consider whether the committee’s findings and recommendations are still appropriate.
“Although the vast majority of wheelchairs are delivered to patients within 21 days of referral, in more complex cases waiting times are sometimes longer.”
He said Wales provides patients with the largest range of equipment in the UK as a deliberate strategy to best meet clinical needs, but this positive factor could have a negative impact on waiting times.
He added that new measures to speed up access to wheelchairs included the establishment of a single organisation for managing and delivering equipment and new all-Wales indicators to show performance across the country.