The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need to secure life-saving medical equipment. But when those vital machines break, there's a fight over fixing them you might not know about. Repair technicians say they can't do their job because manufacturers withhold information to keep the repairs and profit to themselves. Critics say that costs time and lives. Lisa Fletcher reports on the fight over the "right to repair."
The importance of functioning medical machines no clearer, than during a global pandemic.
President Trump: We got the ventilators/ what did with ventilators is incredible /we have the ventilators
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, President Trump touted victory in securing enough ventilators. Beneath the surface, there was a real-time rush to ensure those machines were at the ready.
But there’s a key obstacle to keeping medical equipment of all types up and running: the matter of who can fix them when they break.
Chris Endres: This is an anesthesia machine, you have oxygen, nitrous oxide and medical air coming through the system.
Chris Endres owns Atlantic Biomedical, which services and repairs about 24,000 devices a year, for surgery centers, nursing homes and hospitals.
Chris Endres: We repair all medical devices, from a monitor to a suction pump to defibrillators, anesthesia machines, c-arms, MRI...
He says their vital work often gets blocked by device makers who try to keep the money from the repair business for themselves.
Endres: They don’t want to work with us because we’re a third-party company. They don’t want to give us tech support over the phone. They don’t want to sell us parts and they don’t want to give us any technical literature.
Endres says that happens with about 40% of their workload.
Lisa: This is something you’d service? ‘
Lisa: And what’s their solution?
Endres: They want us to have the doctor call them direct and have them do the repairs themselves.
Lisa: Give me a sense of the price difference between you and the manufacturer. What’s their hourly rate?
Endres: Upwards of $475 an hour.
Lisa: And you?
Endres: We’re $147 an hour.
Lisa: Same training?
Endres: Same training.
The FDA weighed in in 2018, saying it's quote “critical to the functioning of the U.S healthcare system” that for their part, some device manufacturers say repairs done by others could be unsafe.
AdvaMed, the Advanced Medical Technology Association, is a trade association of about 400 healthcare organizations. Last year, it argued that medical device repair is highly sensitive and promoting third party access to repairs could quote, “jeopardize patient safety and quality of care.”
Emily Scarr is the Maryland Director at the Public Interest Research Group, which is helping get third parties the information they need with an initiative called the “right to repair.”
Emily Scarr: When manufacturers control how, and if their products can be repaired, it tends to drive up the cost to consumers, it takes longer for broken items to be fixed, if they can be fixed at all.
Lisa: In simple terms, what is right to repair?
Emily Scarr: The right to repair means customers and independent repair technicians have access to the information they need to maintain equipment, things like service manuals, diagnostic software and replacement parts.
Scarr’s non-profit group collected more than 40,000 petition signatures at the height of the coronavirus emergency calling on ventilator manufacturers to release information others need for repairs and maintenance.
Many responded, some even creating online portals to ensure hospital technicians could have access. A victory in the right to repair world but not an end to the fight.
Lisa: How confident are you that when the pandemic is over, they’re still going to be as free with this information?
Scarr: I’m not confident that they’re going to be free with the information, nor am I confident they’re being as free as they should be right now. While we’ve seen that hospitals and hospital techs have been calling for this information for ages, it took a crisis for them to get access to this information.
Sharyl (on-camera): The “Right to Repair” Bill was introduced in Congress last fall. It is stalled in the Senate.